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RE-EXAMINING GENDER, GENDER ROLES AND IDENTITY IN NIGERIA: THE FATTENING ROOM TRADITION OF THE EFIK (Report of Fieldwork)

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Abstract

The African universe is typically one whole interconnected commune of existence. Just as the world of the living, the dead and the unborn connect in a transcendental manner, the flora and fauna are closely connected to the general and overarching cognition of the natural African person. It is in this very sense that ‘we are what we eat’, an idea that reflects the significance of dietary content to people’s general well-being and sociocultural outlook. For the Africans, therefore, food is life! By extension, in the circle and context of education, we can equally posit that ‘we are what we are taught and what we read’. To this end, the very essence of the Fattening Room practice among the Efik is to make women into what the society wants them to be. In this outlook to life and the world, the rites of passage through the cyclicity of life must be unbroken. Different commentaries already show that, as far as connubial relations are concerned, an average Efik woman has the requisite native education and training needed to hold onto a man and make a lasting home. In the fattening room, an Efik woman is groomed and moulded to know how to care for her prospective husband and what it takes to look after her future home. Regrettably, the fattening room practice is fast waning due to modernity. This book is a report of the field work on the fattening room practice of the Efik, conducted in Calabar, Cross River State in June, 2021. The study utilized the in-depth and key informant interviews as well as the focus group discussions methods to gather qualitative data from maidens who have ever been in the fattening room; chaperons; parents of ever been to fattening room maidens and leaders who are knowledgeable about the practice in the community. Findings reveal the fattening room practice as a rich cultural heritage of the Efik, which is however weakening and fast disappearing, due to the criminalizing of a major aspect of the practice – FGM; also due to the perceived not-too-healthy act of overfeeding the maiden in the fattening room, as well as the traditional length of time for which maidens are expected to stay in the fattening room, which varies from one month to seven years. While the fourth is the fact that many have linked the Anansa river goddess and Egbe ritual to the fattening room practice. This has occasioned a reality in which many who are Christians are seen to frown at the age-old practice. This book is therefore of very strategic importance. This is because essential information disappears with a waning culture.
i
RE-EXAMINING GENDER, GENDER
ROLES AND IDENTITY IN NIGERIA:
THE FATTENING ROOM TRADITION
OF THE EFIK
(Report of Fieldwork)
Akin-Otiko, Akinmayowa
Eshiet, Idongesit
Olokodana-James, Oluwatoyin
Edisua, Merab Yta
ii
Copyright© 2022 Akin-Otiko, Akinmayowa Akinmayowa; Eshiet,
Idongesit; Olokodana-James, Oluwatoyin;
and Edisua, Merab Yta
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in
a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
permission of the author.
ISBN: 978-978-998-458-9
Published By
Lagos-African Cluster Centre,
University of Lagos, Nigeria
Printed By
University of Lagos Press and Bookshop Ltd
Works and Physical Planning Complex
Unilag P.O. Box 132,
University of Lagos,
Akoka, Yaba - Lagos, Nigeria.
e-mail: unilagpress@yahoo.com, unilagpress@gmail.com
website: www.unilagpress.com
Tel: 07039435625
iii
RESEARCH TEAM
Lagos-ACC Principal Investigators
Akinmayowa Akin-Otiko, Ph.D., is a researcher at the Institute
of African and Diaspora Studies (IADS), University of Lagos
and has a special interest in the Religions, Cultures and
Traditional Medicine of Africa. He has a BA and MA in
Philosophy, from the University of Ibadan in 1996 and 2006,
respectively. In 2013, he defended his Ph.D. in African Religion
and Belief System, from the Institute of African Studies,
University of Ibadan. Over the years, he has engaged in research
and discourse in the area of African Traditional Culture. He has
written books, contributed chapters in academic and research
volumes, as well as published in different academic journals. His
current research interest includes bioethical issues in African
Traditional Medicine and this has earned him a Fellow of the
Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies (BA). His
interest falls within the Knowledge and Morality Research
Section of the ACC. He takes a particular interest in the religion
and culture of Africans.
Oluwatoyin Olokodana-James, Ph.D., is a prolific scholar,
dancer, choreographer and three-time recipient of the Lagos
State Scholarship Award from the Lagos State Government
(2008-2011). She is a lecturer in the Department of Creative
Arts, University of Lagos. Her research interests are in African
Studies with a special focus on Dance Ethnography, Gender
Identity Studies, Film Studies and Criticism. Dr. Olokodana-
James is also an Associate Fellow of the Institute of African
Diaspora Studies (IADS), University of Lagos and
Member/Principal Investigator of the African Multiple Cluster
Centre of Excellence, Bayreuth, Germany.
iv
IADS Cluster: Gender, Culture and Identity (Team Lead)
Idongesit Eshiet, Ph.D., is a Sociologist with a research focus
on Gender and Development Studies. Dr. Eshiet is an astute
researcher who has participated in many local and international
research projects. Her work on ‘Voice and Accountability in the
Primary Healthcare Sector in Nigeria’, which argues for good
health governance through civic engagement, won the 1st Prize
of the Belinda and Bill Gates Foundation sponsored Writing
Fellowship Award on ‘Investing in Human Capital as an
Effective Strategy for National Development in Nigeria’ (2019).
Dr. Eshiet is an alumnus of Brown International Advanced
Research Institute, Brown University, Providence, Rhodes
Island, USA, where she was exposed to a Comparative Analysis
of Development Theory and Practice in the global North and
South. This experience has broadened her horizon on
development issues and as well impacted her research and
teaching skills. She is also a Laureate of the Council for the
Development of Social Science Research in Africa
(CODESRIA). Dr. Eshiet has participated and read her works at
various conferences both locally and internationally and has
published extensively both locally and internationally.
Cooperating Partner (Calabar, Nigeria)
Merab Yta Edisua, Ph.D., is a development consultant, an
academic, a foremost Children’s Theatre practitioner in the
South-South Zone, a leading development communication NGO
activist, a writer, director, performing artist, storyteller,
researcher, applied theatre facilitator and church leader. She is a
leader and member of many associations, NGOs and Networks.
Her skills and areas of interest span Gender, SBCC
programming, Tourism, Applied Theatre, Entertainment
Education. At present, she is an alumnus of UNDP LDP in
Nigeria and has completed the West African Capacity Transfer
v
Intensive (WACTI) and leads leadership training for UNDP at
National and International levels.
Research Assistants (IADS Cluster: Gender, Culture and
Identity)
Kehinde Samuel Olukayode is a doctoral student at the
Department of English, University of Lagos, Nigeria. He holds
a master’s degree from the same department. His research
interests are Theatre & Performance, African Popular Culture,
Cultural Studies and Media Studies. Some of his papers have
been published or are awaiting publication in reputed journals.
Abbas Aremu Rahman is an Assistant Lecturer in the
Department of Art & Social Sciences Education, University of
Lagos. He is currently a PhD student pursuing a doctoratein
Education (Teaching and Learning of Islamic Studies) in the
same university. His research interests include educational
theories and pedagogy.
Amenaghawon Idawu (nee Abusomwan) holds a Bachelor of
Arts degree in English & Literature; Advanced Diploma in Early
Childhood Education; Master of Arts degree in English
Language, and Master of Arts degree in African & Diaspora
Studies. She has authored and co-authored academic papers
through cutting-edge research and scholarly ideation.
Blessing Chidiebere Emodi is an educationist with a
specialisation in Igbo Language. She has her Nigeria Certificate
in Education (NCE Igbo/English) 2009; B.Ed. Igbo in 2015;
Master’s in Education (Igbo, 2018); and a Ph.D. in view. Over
the years, Emodi has taught as a Class Teacher, Subject Teacher
and university lecturer. Her interests include integrating
technology and Igbo teaching. She is currently an Assistant
Lecturer at the University of Lagos.
vi
PREFACE
This project was hatched in one of the working sessions of the
Gender, Culture and Identity Research Cluster of the Institute of
African and Diaspora Studies (IADS). The IADS was
established in 2017 with a vision ‘to become an Institute for
exchange of cultural and social ideas and research excellence in
pursuit of knowledge for the development of Africa, the African
Diaspora and the world.’ Since then, the IADS has created a
platform for researchers to engage in critical reflection.
In 2019, the IADS became a home to the Lagos-African Cluster
Centre (ACC). The researchers of IADS were admitted into the
Cluster as Principal Investigators assigned to the Lagos-ACC,
which is one of the four ACCs in Africa. The ACCs are directly
linked to the African Multiple Cluster of Excellence, University
of Bayreuth. The Principal Investigators in the Lagos-ACC have
won different grants from the Cluster of Excellence as well as
the Lagos-ACC. This project, Re-examining Gender, Gender
Roles and Identity in Nigeria: The Fattening Room Tradition of
the Efik’, is one of such projects that won a grant from the
Lagos-ACC.
vii
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The research team wishes to express gratitude to the Cluster and
in particular the Director of the Lagos-ACC, Prof. Muyiwa
Falaiye, for considering this project good enough for funding
after following all due processes. The team is grateful to the
Cooperating partner, Dr. Merab Edisua of the University of
Calabar, for doing all the groundwork and identifying
respondents for the project. The respondents are quite important
to the execution of this project and we appreciate their
significant contributions and are grateful for their consent and
approval to use their contributions in this work. We also duly
acknowledge the immense support of Prof. Bernard Sorre during
the process of analysis. Dr. Abiodun Bello was significantly and
effectively helpful with the proofreading, vetting and quality
assurance of the final report. On behalf of the team, I thank
everyone who contributed in various dimensions for their
critique and input. This we indeed consider a good prelude to
more research.
And finally, I want to thank the Deutsche
Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation)
under the German Excellence Strategy EXC 2052/1
390713894 for funding this first edition through the African
Multiple Cluster of Excellence.
Introduction
1
INTRODUCTION
The African universe is typically one whole interconnected
commune of existence. Just as the world of the living, the dead
and the unborn connect in a transcendental manner, the flora and
fauna are closely connected to the general and overarching
cognition of the natural African person. It is in this very sense
that ‘we are what we eat’, an idea that reflects the significance
of dietary content to people’s general well-being and
sociocultural outlook. For the Africans, therefore, food is life!
By extension, in the circle and context of education, we can
equally posit that ‘we are what we are taught and what we read’.
To this end, the very essence of the Fattening Room practice
among the Efik is to make women into what the society wants
them to be. In this outlook to life and the world, the rites of
passage through the cyclicity of life must be unbroken. Different
commentaries already show that, as far as connubial relations
are concerned, an average Efik woman has the requisite native
education and training needed to hold onto a man and make a
lasting home.
For a long time, society, especially outside her natal context, has
described the Efik woman as ‘promiscuous' based on these
qualities. But such commentaries are, to a large extent, a
reflection of assumptions that are based on a long history of
socialisation and far-reaching popular orientation, often based
on what people outside the Efik culture were taught. In the
fattening room, an Efik woman is groomed and moulded to
know how to care for her prospective husband and what it takes
to look after her future home. If learning takes place properly
and is practised by the book, men who encounter such women
as possessing this orientation, are most likely to fall in love with
them. This mix of acquired values and public disparagement
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
2
form the background for the research into the Fattening Room
Culture of the Efik people.
Regrettably, the fattening room practice among the Efik is fast
waning. The field trip confirmed that the practice is weakening
and disappearing, thus giving this work very strategic
importance. This is because essential information disappears
with a waning culture. The findings of this study show that,
while the practice in its entirety is not extremely bad, some
aspects of the practice, such as female circumcision or female
genital mutilation (FGM), that the government has banned,
make the practice important to examine and evaluate in a
research context.
In the main, there are four reasons the fattening room practice is
found to be waning. First is the classification of female
circumcision as a criminal offence. The second reason is the
perceived not-too-healthy act of overfeeding the bride or the
maiden in the fattening room. The third reason is the traditional
length of time for which maidens are expected to stay in the
fattening room, which varies from one month to seven years,
while the fourth is the fact that many have linked the Anansa
river goddess and Egbe ritual to the fattening room practice. This
has occasioned a reality in which many who are Christians are
seen to frown at the age-old fattening room practice, considering
it as evil and fetish.
However, respondents tend to appreciate what can be learned in
the fattening room. Some described it as a school where a lady
is moulded into a good mother, a wife, a person with an overall
good character, and one that is attractive to men. For these
reasons, all the respondents think highly of the fattening room
practice, but wish for some constructive and progressive
adjustment.
Introduction
3
This research is distinctive because it is a blend of three different
views. The first group represents the older generation who
supports the practice of the fattening room as it is presently done
because they feel it is a longstanding tradition of the Efik. The
second group comprises mostly members of the younger
generation who applaud the focus of the fattening room practice
with significant adjustment and elimination of some needless
parts of the practice. They also requested the possibility of
upgrading the programme into a formal curriculum, where ladies
can go and learn voluntarily to become better persons, whether
married or not. More so, they are of the opinion that a similar
programme or rite should be developed for men to prepare them
for marriages.
The third group represents a few members of the community
who do not support the practice of the fattening room at all.
These are of the opinion that there are other possible ways by
which a woman can be taught the basic things to prepare her for
marriage. The third group is perceptibly hostile to the idea of the
fattening room practice in its entirety because they perceive it
from the point of view of gender imbalance. As a result, they ask
questions such as: Why should it be a woman? Who is preparing
the man for the woman? Why should only women be prepared
for household chores? What is the place of the woman in the
society? Why should a woman’s body be made to become
appealing to a man? What are the health concerns that go with
being very fat? These questions describe the concerns of the
third group.
This report, which assumes a deliberate polyphonic approach,
represents field data gathered in view of laid-out objectives for
the project. The study examined the core notions of culture,
morality, and femininity among the Efik, as exemplified in the
fattening room practice. The study addresses the existing
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
4
knowledge gap by going beyond earlier studies on the
advantages and disadvantages of the fattening room practice
among the Efik people, to observing the fattening room
tradition, highlighting the content of the learning processes,
evaluating the practice, and examining its heuristic value. These
were done against the backdrop of the changing notions of
femininity, gender roles, and identity in contemporary times.
The multivocal style of the report provides an adequate ground
for the researchers to strengthen the voice of respondents and
interviewees in a manner that underscores the role of gender and
gender perception from the perspectives of direct cultural actors
in the context of the Efik fattening room tradition.
Methodology
This is a nine-month research that included fieldwork in Calabar,
in southern Nigeria. The first part of this project had researchers
engage in library studies to review literature. Discoveries at this
stage of the study showed that the fattening room practice among
the Efik was waning. After the literature review, the Principal
Investigators (PIs) and the research team conducted a field trip
to Calabar with the purpose of collecting data for a documentary
on fattening room practices and to carry out Key Informant
Interviews and focus group discussions with people who had
either experienced, or contributed to the fattening room practice.
To achieve the objective of the research, researchers worked
with a Cooperative Partner who is female and knowledgeable in
the Efik tradition, and the Calabar environment. This
Cooperative Partner helped to identify Key Informants. The In-
depth and Key Informant Interview methods were used to elicit
responses from practitioners of the fattening room practice.
Eighteen (18) In-depth Interviews were conducted in the
following categories: six (6) maidens; four (4) parents and two
(2) caregivers who attend to the maidens; six (6) Key Informants
Introduction
5
who are knowledgeable about the fattening room practice both
from historical and contemporary points of view and reside in
the locations in which the study would be carried out. There
were two Focus Group Discussions (FGD); one with male
participants to get the male perspective, and the second with
female participants for the female perspective. The documentary
part of the project was made possible through a re-enactment of
the fattening room practice.
The researchers had the challenge of observing an ongoing
fattening room practice because the practice is fast waning
among the Efik due to the influence of modernity. However, this
challenge was overcome through the documentary part of the
project where the fattening room practice was re-enacted with
the help of the Cooperative Partner. The fieldwork lasted for 10
days, after which the researchers and the Research Assistants in
Lagos, analysed the data collected. The data collected were
analysed in accordance with the research objectives. This is
provided in the Digital Research Environment of the
Cluster/Lagos-ACC. The documentary that shares the title of
this report is part of the data that were collected and analysed.
Research Objectives
This section is focused on the analysis of the data collected
from the field during the study. The main purpose of the
study is to examine Gender, Gender Roles and Identity in
Africa, with a focus on the fattening room tradition native
to the Efik people of Nigeria. However, there are five (5)
specific objectives that will be responded to using the data
gathered from the field. These specific objectives include:
1. To investigate the language, symbols, rituals, and shared
meanings that characterise the fattening room practice
among the Efik. The researchers set out to find out the
languages, symbols, rituals and shared meanings that
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
6
characterise the fattening room practice of the Efik in
Nigeria.
2. To identify the learning models used in the fattening room
practice of the Efik. The researchers asked, ‘What
learning models are used in the fattening room practice of
the Efik in Nigeria?’
3. To show the multiplicity of knowledge in gender, gender
roles, and identity among Africans. Researchers wanted
to identify the multiplicities of knowledge (childbearing,
homecare, cooking, sexuality, health, etc.) derived from
the fattening room practice of the Efik in Nigeria. The
content of the learning processes was derived from
interviews.
4. To produce a narrative of the fattening room practice of
the Efik against the backdrop of deducing a theory on
gender, gender role, and identity in Africa. This objective
generate the question: Can a theory on gender, gender role
and identity in Africa be deduced based on the narratives
of the Fattening room practice of the Efik in Nigeria?
5. To contribute to the Cluster-Knowledge Lab on gender,
gender roles and identity in Africa. To achieve this
objective, researchers asked questions around gender,
gender roles and identity in Africa.
At any rate, researchers found this study important because
contemporary discourses on gender are dominated by Western
views of femininity and masculinity that currently challenge the
traditional notions on gender and gender roles in Africa.
Nevertheless, since every culture has a clear understanding of
gender and gender roles, which help in shaping the identity of
individuals in their societies, it is important that such diversity
of views in gender discourse be given equal prominence in
scholarship, especially in Africa as a continent notable for
multiple cultures and gender notions.
Introduction
7
The findings aid the reflexive aspect of the project by
juxtaposing the multiple positions on gender with contemporary
ideas from the West with the view to a better appreciation of the
strength and structure of gender and identity development
among Africans. At the same time, the study self-evaluates the
existing African positions on gender, gender roles and identity
and consequently produces balanced positions that are better
apprehended as a sociocultural dialogue rather than an
uncoordinated ethnological and discursive formation on African
cultural practices in particular and the African world at large.
Data and Discussion Based on Research Objectives
As already stated, this study is mapped out and coordinated
based on a research focus that has been outlined into strategic
research objectives. These are systematically worked out into a
well-tailored field report as represented in the subsequent
sections of this discourse.
Objective 1:
To investigate the language, symbols, rituals, and shared
meanings that characterise the fattening room practice among
the Efik. The researchers set out to find out the languages,
symbols, rituals and shared meanings that characterise the
fattening room practice of the Efik in Nigeria.
Findings:
Findings from the study show that the fattening room practices
among the Efik are characterised by shared meanings,
languages, symbols and rituals. This is to the extent that cultures
are generally transmissible by learning behaviours that make
them sustainable from one generation to another through
established processes of socialisation, including rites of passage.
As such, the objective of the fattening room is to make the girl
child go through a rite of passage that acquaints and empowers
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
8
her with life skills, such as home management skills, relational
skills, self-care, etiquettes and good manners, among other
teachable skills and cultural ways.
In the process of teaching cultural ethos and virtues to maidens
in the fattening room, the caregiver devises a special language
and a set of symbols of communication with participants. All the
participants in the Focus Group Discussion with women agreed
that ‘…there are special languages used in the fattening room.’
In the words of Respondent 4 (R4), ‘…I can tell now but those
languages are symbolic and you can’t get it anywhere [others
are in agreement].’ Respondent 1 (R1) mentioned nsibidi as
an example of a special language used. According to R4, ‘… The
hairdo carries a specially made comb from brass...and on that
comb, there are some signs written on it, those are the nsibidi
symbols.’ R2 mentioned that ‘the hairdo for adiagha, who is the
first daughter, is different from that of the second daughter; and
…the hairdo styles are different types.’
In addition, during the fattening room practice, maidens engage
in certain ritual activities that help define the fattening room rite
of passage among the Efik. Ritual is taken to mean actions and
activities that are done repeatedly and women are said to be a
part of the ritual process in the Efik kingdom. In the remark of
Respondent 2:
As far as I know, being in Duke Town Church where the
English coronations of Efik kings are done, I discovered
years back during the coronation of Edidem Iye Ephraim
Adam that it is a woman that pours the Mmong Emem
(Water of Peace) on the Edidem (King). I also knew [at]
that time that the last insult the Edidem receives
(marking the last time anybody can insult the Edidem for
Introduction
9
the rest of his lifetime) is the Ikong Edidem Eti, and that
is also done by a woman (FGDM, R2).
In agreement with this remark, Respondent 4 added that:
My brothers have already said a lot in this matter, but I
also want to bring in one other point. Efik people love
beautiful things. In the government of the Efik, we
believe in Oku Ndem, the overall power. The Mbiam
Nfat (the juju makers) were the messengers and
implementors [sic] of what the Oku Ndem said. The Oku
Ndem were people from the water. Those that travelled
to the waters saw how beautiful the people there were.
So, when they came out of the water, they tried to make
their daughters as beautiful as the people [in] the marine
world because, if your child was accepted by Ndem, she
would be rated higher. The process of making her that
beautiful is to take her through this process and
preparation… [He however asserts] But first and
foremost, we are descendants of the Jews and we take
from God’s instruction that circumcision is a must, but
we here do it to both male and female… But because the
people from Ndem usually prefer female to male
children, our people beautify the female child to look as
closely beautiful as possible to the girls in the marine
world so they can be acceptable to the men in the marine
world. That beautification happens in the fattening
room… (FGDM, R4).
As an attempt to aid an understanding of the rituals in the nkuho
tradition, R4 further identified some of the underlying reasons
for the tradition in these words:
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
10
The first phase of nkuho is to make the girl-child know
all that she needs to know about managing a household,
proper behaviour, etiquettes, etc.
The last phase gives her the final preparation and
releases her to practice the things that she has learnt
(FGD MEN, R4).
Another participant who agreed with the above comments also
passionately added her own assertion, that:
Though I pass through it, right? But I think it was a rite
of passage, preparing you to become a woman. Because
I think that their belief was that before a girl child is sent
out, she should be well cultured (FGD WOMEN, P4).
As observed, the nkuho happens before marriage and some of
the women explained part of the ritual that usually takes place
before the marriage in nkuho.
I think [that], about a week before my marriage, I was
just not allowed to go out, friends could not come to see
me and I have a senior matron or relative, somebody in
the family and they [would] just bring food for me to eat
and then they [would] massage me with the traditional
ointment (FGD WOMEN, P3).
Another participant in this group, in a rejoinder, added the
following comment:
Yes, I will answer that question, if you call that ritual
because, in the house, you are being confined. Nobody
comes in there except your caregiver. And, on the door,
there is this soft palm front, like [a] fresh, one and they
Introduction
11
put it there; that is, to give the information to some other
person that someone is inside that room and nobody
should come in there. So, if you call that a ritual, I will
agree with you (FGD WOMEN, P4).
On marriage and its related rituals, Idi who had participated in
the nkuho shared a broader perspective on the subject of
marriage to complement the contributions of other participants
in the group:
R: Right at that teenage age, a suitor or a family might
eye you as [that point] and decide to come notify the
family, ‘We are interested in this girl [just] in case
you would want us to [have] her hand in marriage.’
That is 'nkuho eyen owon'. After that, you will be
removed... That is the rite of passage for the girl.
I: Okay
R: And it is agreed that, at that time, you don't know
what a man is, right!
I: Okay.
R: It is from that age of 15 or 16, that they will now
mutilate your female genital organ... After that...,
now you've entered your rite of passage, and you are
proceeding to become an adult, right!?
I: Okay
R: At the age of 18, this suitor who has already indicated
interest, the family now would have started making a
move into coming to ask your parents for your hands
in marriage. That’s where the real nkuho now comes
in because you have to stay another year… it could
be two or three or more depending on how capable
your parents are to keep you in the house, feed you
... because you don't have anything to do [other] than
to eat and sleep (P 1).
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
12
It is important to note that, during the above discussion on the
recurring subject of nkuho, the subject of female circumcision
during the rites also came to the fore. As far as the general
cultural awareness of the participants goes, the rite was
incomplete without the circumcision ritual:
Before I was put into the fattening room, in fact, I was
circumcised, Yes! And that was the first stage. (FGD
WOMEN, P2).
While explaining the process of the circumcision, it was further
highlighted that:
… then you go to the backyard where they have plantain
trees. They cut some fresh plantain leaves which they use
as a mat for you to lie naked. Your legs are held by two
people, then a native nurse comes with scissors and a
razor, after which they massage the clitoris to make it
soft before cutting it (Maiden, 1).
On the part of the caregiver, the following explain the question
on how to become a caregiver, if there was an initiation process:
I: ... is there any sort of initiation that these caregivers
would have to go through? We are not talking about
forbidden [things] now...
R: No no no no no..., there is initiation
I: No ritual processes?
R: No ritual processes. There is practically nothing...
They just look at you as an elderly woman, that you
have the traditional knowledge; they pick you. It all
boils down to you accepting… your interest (P. 1).
Introduction
13
On shared meaning during the fattening room process, the
researchers noted with interest the following point as articulated
by one of the participants:
I want to agree to a large extent with what you have said.
In a way, when you look at it with the lenses of gender,
yes! When they go into this fattening, they are told this
is what you must do: as a woman, you must be
submissive to your husband; this is what you must do to
your in-laws, and things like that. Not as if they really
train them to be confident and free. Then, another aspect
of the fattening room which we have not mentioned here
is the circumcision aspect (FGD WOMEN, P.3).
No, it is just a notice that somebody is in the house, and
their belief too, depending on the family. It used to be
believed that if a lizard or wall gecko came in and peeped
[during the circumcision rite], it would reduce your body
or the flesh so that, no matter how [they] ate, they
wouldn’t get the curves that they wanted. So they put that
[i.e. leaves from the plantain sucker]. Some used to put a
grass that is nkim enang and they tied it with half-burnt
firewood and [kept] it by the door, so that in case
anybody an elderly woman might want to come and
see you or your mother friend may want to come and see
you. In case they have any bad intentions or negativity,
it will be neutralised. (FGD WOMEN, P4).
Providing clarification, another participant added:
No! It was just for you as a girl-child… your pride [P2
re-echoes ‘your pride’] and for the family; just your
pride. If you come out, you will look down on other girls
that have not gone through that process as if they are not
your mate (FGD WOMEN, P4).
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
14
Yes, it gives complexity to the other girls. Because you
need to see how this ceremony is, especially [on the day
the maiden is coming out]. It is usually a big festival
[where] the whole people will gather. So it gives you that
confidence and class (FGD WOMEN, P1)
... I think a normal Efik girl will be proud if she is put in
a fattening house and taught how to cook. Some don’t
even know how to cook what we call edikan Ikong soup
because there is [a] difference between edikan Ikong and
vegetable soup [other participants concur]. So a girl will
be happy if she is taught how to cook these special
delicacies of the Efik what edikan ikong really is, so
those practices can continue. But let the circumcision be
removed because it was not a palatable experience
[Three participants agreed that the circumcision should
not be included but P2 believes it should still be part of
the fattening room tradition] (FGD WOMEN, P4).
I don’t think it is completely going out because most
people now cannot just do the wedding without doing the
traditional [wedding] and in the traditional [wedding]
you will go through some of those things (FGD
WOMEN, P1).
Out of experience yes, because most times you are not
hungry and you are forced to eat. The early morning food
that is garri soaked overnight [Others agree and laugh]
to make it soft and they put plenty [of] water in it, and it
is given to you to drink and you are tired of it, but you
are forced to drink it because they want your curves to
come out. It is believed that if you are well-fed, your
curves will come out and your body will be glittering and
that one has not finished. Around 10 or 11am, they bring
Introduction
15
you another one and this is … sometimes ekpang or ortor
in a big tray again. That aspect was not very sweet [All
agree] (FGD WOMEN, P4.)
No! It did not. The 12 pounds remain the 12 pounds and
all the item mmin ukung usung (drinks for knocking
door), mmin akan (drinks for prayer), mmin ekom
(drinks for greeting)… Everything remains the same till
today, nothing has changed. It is just the greedy parents
these days. Even then, there was nothing like mkpo ete
(gifts for father). It was strictly mkpo eka (gifts for
mother). But, as we speak now, mkpo ete is even higher
than mkpo eka. They will just give mkpo eka peanut,
except the groom's family are rich that they will now
enhance mkpo eka. But mkpo ete is up there [meaning
on a high side] (KII, 2).
For the nkuho, like I told us earlier, we have nkuho in
three stages. The early one is to keep the child on point,
make her focus. You know education was by the way.
But, when the Whites came in, it was pertinent that the
girl-child should go to school. That is why circumcision
at that school-age that is, 7 to 8 years was very
pertinent, very very popular. As at that time, it was just
to do the circumcision (KII, 5).
Yes, it was then year 6 or 7. The child was expected to
start Elementary One. There was this general belief that
we all have feelings, that even a child has feelings and
they were careful not to let somebody touch the child in
an unpleasant place so that she would not feel anything.
There was this belief that once circumcision is done, all
feelings are gone. And some married women then
suffered it because they were denied what it means [to
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
16
have] feelings for your husband. They were denied what
it means for a woman to cum when she is having sex
with her husband. They were denied all that. All they
knew was just go in there, do the needful to become a
mother. But to enjoy sex? Zero (KII, 4).
At nkuho preparing you for ndo (marriage), you will be
taught all these things [that] we have mentioned. But, for
making you an akwa nwan (full woman), it is expected
of us that, as we are sending out our daughter, we are not
just selling her, so that no husband tomorrow will ask
you, ‘When you came, what did you come with? [From]
everything in this house, show me what you came with.’
Not from our tribe. From our tribe here, [when] sending
you off, we are sending you off fully. They will give you
a full parlour setting. They will give you a kitchen set.
They will give you a full-room setting as you are going
to your husband’s house and they will give you good
money. Good money [has been] seen inside the seclusion
room. So everybody that goes into the seclusion room
in fact, the girl in question that is secluded has been
taught and given something to say if she dares sights it:
nnugho mbe nnugho, meaning, ‘monitoring spirit I
monitor you first’ [laughter]. Because it is believed that
the wall gecko is coming to take everything that the girl
has eaten, … so once the girl sees it or if anybody that is
there sights it, they will make that exclamation. So,
culturally, like most of the cultural artefacts are brought
out on the outing ceremony to decorate the nkuho’s
seat... Most of the artefacts there, depending on the
family like in my royal home, we will bring out our
golden gong, our golden panes, our silver spoons, our
canon. My father had a canon that was used in fighting
the war. Our artefacts from years of slave trade, the palm
Introduction
17
fronts, the [golds] that were collected during the early
stage, depending on the family. Sometimes families
borrow. You can borrow from some other families
[artefacts such as] golden lanterns, the traditional long
guns, the Dane guns, heads of Carmel, heads of lions that
[a family member] had killed. And this differs from one
family to another. So families do borrow these things to
enrich their canopies. So it all depends on what you want
to showcase, depending on your level of affluence (KII,
2).
Based on these complex preparations, a family that has any
interest in a maiden being already groomed and now wants her
as a wife in their family, may now go into possible pre-nuptial
negotiations with the maiden’s family, often without her
knowledge. This is the second stage in the chain of processes. In
the third process, once the maiden in question has been removed
from the traditional fattening home, she goes to the church
dressed in her gown. The day after is usually the market day and
the lady is dressed in another attire as she makes a public
appearance on such a day.
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
18
Plate 1: A maiden freshly out of the fattening room
The participant provides a further description of that occasion in
this narrative manner:
Introduction
19
They now take her to the market... because she has to go
through the market. People have to appreciate the work
[the efforts] of her parents how they were able to feed
her, massage her [and] how beautiful now she looks…
Oh! She has now become...she is going to be a woman.
And the suitor there now has seen [her] and he's happy.
People now come... keep giving her many gifts many
gifts all the apparatus, and even the food- stuff, right!
And then she goes back to the fattening room to now
become a woman for the next four years making seven
good years. So, she stays there and learns whatever
trade... My grandmother was a seamstress. It was inside
there that they taught her how to cut and sew. Then it was
[the era of] the hand-sewing machine. There [were no
leg-pedaled] machines. So, they bring the [maiden]
there. She goes out to learn to cut and sew and they have
all these crocheting [designs and patterns] … they teach
her how to crochet all that... what [designs] she'll be
doing to put in the back chair... These antimacassars in
the chairs and on the table...
Illustrating this further, the participant provided more details:
Like now that we have the Obong, right? You know the
queen... Except if she wants to go to the kitchen, she has
everything there. There are housekeepers. There are
maidens who do everything. So, in the case of my
grandmother, there were so many slaves in the
compound who did everything for her and the mother.
So, except there is a particular food the father wants to
eat, it is then the mother enters the kitchen to supervise
the cooking.
And as a queen, you want her to come and sit and train
her child? So, she has somebody who is capable of doing
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
20
that. She employs that person. That's when the caregiver
comes in. The caregiver is well taken care of. The king
has a lot of things. Is it money or wealth? The caregiver
is well taken care of monetary wise and wealth wise...
Assuming you are put in a fattening room, and you have
an arrangement between you, your caregiver and your
suitor or your male friend...and you are inside your
fattening room remember you've been circumcised so
it's a license now that you can have fun or have sex and
maybe your caregiver is not around, your parents are not
around, and your guy sneaks in and in the process, you
become pregnant when your caregiver notices that you
are pregnant, you will not stay up to the day that you are
supposed to, and the traditional rite of bringing you out,
putting you on the podium for people to watch, to come
and give you gifts will not be there. They will expel you
from the fattening room (IDI, 1).
This is the extent to which the nkuho traditional practices can be
adjudged to be self-regulating and self-correcting.
Of Symbols and Meaning in the Context of the Fattening
Room
The distinct context of the fattening room inscribes within its
space the presence of special symbols which also encode in
themselves meanings that are understood only within this
interpretive community by participants. These could have loose
meanings and at other times may be complex. Participants in the
Focus Group Discussion recalled and rehashed some of these
ideas as presented further:
Sorry, I want to disagree because I don’t think they stay
that long in the fattening room and there is a certain age
Introduction
21
when you are 12 or 14 when you are approaching
puberty, you don’t stay there up to a year in the fattening
room and then the issue of circumcision is not a problem
[some participants disagrees] (FGD WOMEN, P2).
Some people do it as I attended a traditional marriage
in London. You need to see the processes even in
London. People were telling them how to dress [even
there] in London and it was a beautiful experience and it
gave this empowerment you are talking about in all
ramifications and is giving you self-pride and confidence
and I was so proud of it. I took pictures and I said, Ah!
So this thing can be taken to London. It is good (FGD
WOMEN, P1).
[The speaker chuckles] You know at that age I was told
and I did not understand and I went through it, and like
she said the pampering, everything, the care, you were
taught how to do this and that (FGD WOMEN, P2).
Yes! Because they want your curves to come out when
you come out of the fattening room you will be figure 8.
(FGD WOMEN, P4).
...we call it uwang idem’ because, while you are there,
you don’t wear clothes. Just a little piece on your waist
they call it mkpin and since your boobs have started
coming, there is a small piece tied on your boobs region
(FGD WOMEN, P4).
It is assumed that if you wear clothes, it ties your body
and you will not be as fat as they want. So, you won’t
wear it so that you will be free and, as the massage is
going on, you will give them what they want (FGD
WOMEN, P4).
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
22
I think it is a common one. You use your ofong-ukot
anwan (something like women’s pants/trousers), the
beads all those things are symbolic. And I am
oduwan’, that is, the second daughter and there is a bead
for that and hairstyle and for the ‘adiagha’ too – she has
a special bead and hairstyle, depending on your position
in the family (FGD WOMEN, P2).
Yes! While they were in the fattening room, the nkuho
attendants could use the white cloth to give a certain
design [shows the interviewer the symbol] this
serpentine movement that, as you are leaving this
fattening room, life is not a straightforward thing. Life is
not a bed of roses. As you are going out there if you think
marriage is just a straight line thing no, marriage has
so many challenges and those challenges were
interpreted with this [shows the symbol again]; so don’t
expect any straight line pattern of life in your marriage.
You will see curves all over and when those curves come
you have to develop a thick skin to withstand them so
that your marriage will stand. That is one. Two, the
flowery pattern on their faces, teaches them that you
must always package yourself, not [only] when you are
seen. You were a sweet-looking girl. But just [by] one
drop, you turn yourself to ekaeka (i.e. grandmother or old
woman). From there your husband that was not supposed
to be looking outside when he comes back you are there
tying a wrapper on your boobs. You have now turned
into an old woman no! Still, maintain yourself and your
husband will not go looking right, left, back, and front.
And they do that through the facial design [which they]
make on them. And you talked about the brass trays.
Most of those designs are also encrypted on the brass
plates that you use in serving guests when they come
Introduction
23
that you use in decorating your house. All of them have
codes of love, codes of fairness about life, codes of being
straightforward in life, codes of harmonisation in life.
Without these codes [as they will teach you] you may not
really succeed in life and your marriage (KII, 5).
I heard, ‘Marine, marine, marine,’ in the morning. I did
not want to interfere, because what they brought in was
bringing in ekanem-abasi (name of Efik marine deity)
into ndo (marriage). We are Efiks and we know Anansa
Ndem Iboku, Ekanem Abasi Ibodio they are all spirits
that... They are seers. If a king is about to be nominated,
Ekpenyong Odusu, Ekanem Abasi, in particular,
Ekanem Ibodio are consulted. [So and so name] has been
nominated for enthronement. Is he qualified? Those are
the duties of Ekanem Abasi; that is one. On the other
hand, if the parents have stayed there five years, seven
years, ten years, fifteen years and there is no child and
they decided to consult Ekpenyong Abasi and they
consulted Ekpenyong Abasi and Akanem Abasi in the
power that God has given her was able to manipulate and
help them have a child. These deities will not give [to]
you and you just go away. You must return to them. So
that is where those things come to play. But, in the free
ones, no, no. And those deities the good ones are like
guidance angels. We have guidance angels in the church.
We have prophetesses in these newborn churches, the
likes of Father Mbaka. They are all everywhere. They
will tell you it is like this, it will be like that, it will
happen like this. Those are the roles of Ekpenyong
Abasi… (KII, 5).
Everything is symbolic. In the coming-out ceremony, for
instance, [with respect to] the Efik hairdo, there is the
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
24
one that is done for the adiagha’, that is the first
daughters. There is the one that is done for the second
daughters. In the coming-out ceremony, this hair that
they have there is a length for the first daughter. There is
a length for the second daughter. So you dare not make
the mistake of giving the firstborn a shorter hair or the
second daughter a longer length.
Considering the number of combs also, the first daughter
has seven combs; the second daughter cannot have more
than five combs from four, three down, [but] not more
than five, you know. So they are all very symbolic. For
the dance the coming-out costume itself. The short
rapper that is tied the mmpin as you call it, or the
oyonyo that you wear will all show that day whether
you [are] betrothed or not betrothed. For instance, if the
nkuho girl comes out with a longer oyonyo, it means that,
before she went into the fattening room, somebody had
already betrothed her. So, you can’t see all [of] her – you
know everything she has to offer again. You can only
see as much as you can see because somebody had
already betrothed her. But, if she has not been betrothed,
she will tie just the other small clothes on her waist and
chest so that you can still admire her and get desires. So
everything is symbolic. The songs are symbolic (KII, 2).
After that, they come every morning to dress you up.
They use the native pot, the small one, which they heat
and add oil, then water and something else. When this
mixture is ready, they use a chicken feather to dip in and
rub you, instead of their hands. After they have used
warm water to massage the wound, they use the chicken
feather, dipped in palm oil to put on the surface of the
wound (Maiden 1).
Introduction
25
To these extents, it can be seen that the language, symbols,
rituals, and shared meanings as inscribed within the fattening
room practice, are not simplistic in their significations, as they
indeed constitute important cultural aspects that engender
internal cohesion and coherence for the native Efik people.
Objective 2
In this section, the main focus is to identify the learning models
used in the fattening room practice of the Efik in Nigeria. The
researchers asked ‘what learning models are used in the
Fattening room practice of the Efik in Nigeria?’
Generally, the learning models of the fattening room stems from
the informal educational tradition, where nothing [like a]
curriculum or timetable is scheduled for the teachings. The
teachings and learning are basically [apprenticeship-like] in
approach. The subject matters, including moral, health,
homecare and similar teachings, are vocationally inclined this
is, the learning models that pervade the findings.
Identification of [the vocational method] as the general learning
model is evident in the response of a member of the men’s focus
group discussion. He explained:
Just like it has been said earlier, where you have all forms
of vocational training, she is trained on how to dance,
how to cook, how to make beads and mats and other
crafts plus many other training including behaviour and
proper interaction with people and how to plan for [her]
future (FGDM, R1).
Following the nature of the vocational method of teaching,
everything was learnt by doing and practising. A participant in
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
26
the female focus group discussion, who is also a maiden that
is, a ‘graduate’ of the fattening room gave the details in this
manner:
So, in my own case, the caregiver really took time to
teach me how to prepare the ekpang. You have to grate
the cocoyam so that it does not stain your hands. She tells
you if it does. ‘What if your husband happens to pass by
and sees you and all your hands are messed up with
cocoyam?’ He might decide not to eat that food because
he will feel that you were not well-groomed. So you have
to make sure that those things do not come into play. And
they show you how to tie it with cocoyam leaves and
how you place it in the pot. You are shown what you
have to put first under the pot, what you put in the middle
and then when to put crayfish, when to put fish and when
to put oil. You sit down and watch how they are doing it
(Maiden 1).
Also, some of the teaching and learning were artistic in nature.
This model is a form of vocational training that involves
storytelling, teaching of proverbs, singing, dancing, attire
dressing, carving and weaving. This was made known by a male
Key Informant in his response that:
In the fattening room ... there is a lot of storytelling,
especially at the first stage. They teach them songs [sings
in efik dialect Ekpe ino ebot mi, mmangha ti
mmagimag] at that level. So that is where we have
storytelling... ( KII: 5).
This submission was also affirmed by a female Key Informant:
Introduction
27
So, you are taken through all that process and it is very
artistic. And the way and manner she does whatever she
is doing the massage is very artistic (KII, 4).
Complementing the learning models used are the various types
of knowledge received in the fattening room. These are
discussed in the next objective.
Objective 3
In this section, the objective is to show the multiplicity of
knowledge in gender, gender roles, and identity among Africans,
in this instance as enshrined in the cultural practices of the Efik.
Researchers wanted to identify the multiplicities of knowledge
(for instance, about childbearing, home care, cooking, sexuality,
health, etc.) derived from the fattening room practice of the Efik
in Nigeria. The contents of the learning processes were derived
from interviews.
The findings revealed that a multiplicity of knowledge was
received in the fattening room. This is analysed and presented
under such discrete themes as childbearing and motherhood,
home care, cooking, sexuality, health, skills, and morality.
Childbearing and Motherhood
Childbearing and motherhood in the context of the fattening
room are characterised by teachings on the art of mothering. It
involves the care of self and that of the baby How to put the
baby to sleep, bathing of the baby, breastfeeding, and the
teaching of the children forms the basic knowledge under
childbearing or motherhood. This could be inferred from the
responses from the female Key Informants, two of whom
explained, in part, that:
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
28
There is an aspect that, when you become a mother, there
are certain things you must do. Of course, you have to
keep your baby clean. Apart from your own personal
hygiene, the children must be clean. You must teach your
children how to respect elders. So it is all part of it. A
mother should be able to impact that knowledge on her
child (KII, 2).
And the other:
… so that the storehouse will never deplete. So, the most
important part of that seclusion process is the social
education, the social character moulding where the
women selected to do this work will be coming every
day to teach her how to breastfeed a child. They will be
checking her weight, how to carry a baby (KII, 5).
Nkuho, therefore, like many other African traditions,
underscores the importance of adequate preparation or
preparedness for motherhood as well as the roles that come with
it.
Homecare
Homecare is another form of knowledge in the fattening room.
This is all about the management of home and house chores as
explained by a member of the male focus group discussants:
It is all about training your daughter or girl-child on
home management, to be able to cater for her home when
she gets married to her husband. In the fattening room,
she will be taught how to run home chores (FGDM, R3).
Homecare teaching involves how to make the home neatly [and
make it] properly arranged. The clothes in the bedroom must not
Introduction
29
be scattered all over. The sitting room must also be
accommodating. Visitors should find one’s home open and
hospitable. A key informant and focus group discussant
elucidated:
When your in-law comes around, this is how to treat
them. When they come, welcome them. Always have
food. Your home should be a home where your door is
always open and people are always welcome. You know
those kinds of thoughts (FGDW, R3). Two, they also
teach them how to cater for [their] home. You don’t
scatter things. Your [living room] must look good. Your
bedroom must be good. Your husband’s bed must look
clean the bed sheet clean, everywhere clean, fine smell
[good] (KII, 5).
Also, care of the husband is one core [aspect] of homecare.
Cooking for the husband and the children; getting bathing water
for the husband; setting the table and kind treatment of one’s
husband are homecare contents. Some of the maidens
interviewed revealed their experiences in this regard:
I have said it. I [learnt] how to cook [from] inside there.
I [learnt] how to take care of my husband. Nobody
[taught] me. I learnt it there and it is making my
marriage sweet (Maiden 2) ...They will teach you when
you leave here and go to your husband’s house, how to
welcome him... In the morning, how you put water for
him to wash his hands, wash his face, small things [like]
you putting a chewing stick for him to chew, [washing]
his mouth and how you keep water for him to bath
(Maiden 2).
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
30
Accordingly, knowledge of how to cook different traditional
meals for husband, children and relatives could not preclude
teachings in the fattening room. Findings revealed that Efik
people have three-course meals and special delicacies. One of
the caregivers explained that:
Then they will tell you: for your husband to love you,
these two things must be in place. One [is] his stomach
so you must be knowledgeable in cooking all cuisines.
Before you leave that seclusion, you are taught how to
cook all kinds of dishes. You can cook this one today and
you take it to your aunty or mother to taste first. She will
teach you how to cook it. Then, the next day, she will
drop all the ingredients and tell you [to] cook. If you
make a mistake, she will correct you. [The] next day, it
is another food, [and the] next day another food, until
you are taught all the cuisines. And then the most
difficult is anyan ekpang (a morsel-type of a meal
prepared with cocoyam and eaten with Banga soup) and
efere abak’ (Banga soup). They will tell you to cook it
and sit down [to watch] you. In those days, our mothers
could start from morning to prepare abak’ (Banga soup)
and ‘anyan ekpang’ till 4pm. So they [would] teach you
all kinds of cuisines. After that they [would] teach you
how to serve it. They [would] teach you the first-course
meal. The Efik people have a three-course meal... The
Efiks have what we call starters that is ekpuba
(specially prepared pork) and edita iwa (slithered
cassava, or tapioka) or unam mbakara (pork meat). They
[would] tell you [to not keep waiting] your husband
[when] you are about to prepare food. Put something in
his face so that he can be busy, you know. And then, if it
is not edita iwa, it can be nnya’, that is garden egg and
groundnut; or ntokon ibong’, that is a special kind of
Introduction
31
pepper source used in eating kola nut and garden egg.
They [would] show you how to prepare it. You don’t
give it to him while he has started eating, no! You give
it to him while you are cooking and if there is a good fish
we call that kind of fish ayara iyak’; that is fish that,
during drying it, you remove the fatty part of it and keep
the real fish part then you put pepper on it and give him
to eat. After that, when the food that you are preparing is
ready, you serve him. Immediately after he finishes
eating, you have to give him fresh palm wine to drink
and that fresh palm wine does not go alone but with a
little fish. Therefore, you may never know [in case] his
friends are around. So, you don’t always give him one
cup. Bring cups [just] in case anybody is walking past
and sees ete drinking palm wine and wants to join him
(Caregiver 1).
From the above, serving the food is a major component of the
culinary knowledge expected from nkuho training.
Sexuality
In the fattening room, the teachings about sexuality are all about
how to make one’s husband happy sexually. In the Efik tradition,
hygiene is key to sexuality. So, the maidens are taught to be neat
all through, even during their menstrual cycle. Then, no woman
should deny her husband sex. On this aspect, a maiden revealed
as follows:
About sex ... there is a white cloth that they will give you.
They call it ‘ufung Idak abed’ or ‘ufung idak mmkpana’,
which means ‘under pillow cloth’. They will give you
and [say], when you meet your man, how to use it and
clean yourself and they will teach you how to wash it,
how to keep it clean and even when you are
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
32
menstruating. They will teach you your cycles. They will
teach you how to use clothes. Like me, my grandmother
taught me how to use [the] cloth when menstruating and
that one was even better than this pad. After using it, you
will wash it using hot water and sterilise it and fold it
neatly again and fold it and cover it for next time. Yes,
they teach you that you should not deny your husband
sex, as many times as he needs you, you should not deny
him (Maiden 2).
Thus, being appealing to one’s husband with sweet words and
how to be romantic and nice-looking have also been identified
as complementary to being sexually attractive. In the description
of one parent:
And when you have finished taking your bath, dress very
well. Carry your fine nightgown and wear it so that,
when your husband turns to look at you, he will be
attracted to you (Parent 1) ...A girl-child who is from
Efik I am not saying Akwa Ibom; I am not saying
Ibibio, but Efik can open her thighs without an odour
coming out from her. The reason is that, from that first
seclusion, you are taught how to insert your hand into
your vagina so when you later have a girl-child and the
girl child has a swap inside her vagina which God has
put it there and the smell there is like onion and
[whatever] comes out is whitish; it is not cream; it is not
green; it is not red. So, by the time you fail to have this
colour, it means you are sick. You put your hand every
day in your body when you take your bath and bring out
the swap and check. They will teach you that, whenever
that swap changes from white to another colour, [you
should] tell your mama. Maybe you have been infected
from the toilet. They teach them to put their hand in their
Introduction
33
body. Even till tomorrow, an Efik woman will put her
hand in her body to clean it. They will also teach you that
you are not supposed to leave hair in your armpit. They
tell you that it will bring odour unwanted odour and
then your private part; you bring it down and wash it very
well not just to take your bath wuruwa! wuruwa! that
is, in a rush and go away. You will take time to wash
your private part very well; take time to care for that part.
And they will teach you that the moment you have
sex with your husband there is a cloth during the
marriage ceremony that will be given to you, a towel,
you will take it and wipe yourself. That cloth is always
underneath the pillow and they will teach you that, when
you finish having fun with your husband, use that towel
and dab yourself and immediately you finish and your
husband has gone out remove it and go and wash it, dry
it, fold it and put it back there (Caregiver 3).
For the Efik, there is no denying the significance of sexual
education in the rites of coming-of-age. This preparation is
deemed to serve a functional purpose in the overall cognitive
process of the girl-child or bride-to-be in the world of the Efik,
indeed as far as matrimonial responsibilities and expectations
are concerned.
Health
Another teaching in the fattening room is on health. Findings
revealed that there are usually talks on a healthy lifestyle. This
is basically through good hygiene and the use of traditional
medicines, like the white chalk, to beautify and treat rashes on
the body. These are parts of health knowledge as evident in the
excerpts below:
In the fattening room, I was taught not to keep my armpit
and pubic hairs. I was taught how to bathe in the morning
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
34
and evening, how to brush my teeth and I do them to keep
myself hygienic (Maiden 4). I had vegetable soup, which
they say is good for the body... In fact, I just ate most of
the dishes, I won't lie. I can't remember what I was told,
but that otor (grated water yam) helps in blood
circulation especially as it's spiced with scent leaves,
uyayak, and other spices. That mostly, when we put to
bed, we would be made to take plenty of it and other
slightly peppery foods with spices to help flush the
system and boost the breast milk flow. But then, I also
ate it even though I was not breastfeeding. They showed
me how to make it and enjoy it (Maiden 3).
This is to the extent to which folk education on health goes in
the equipping of the maiden in the fattening room. Though the
preparation around personal health may be perceived or
appreciated from an individual-centred rite, it is, in a futuristic
sense, an aspect of education that will become hands-on in the
bride’s future matrimonial home, and, by extension, as a
potential future caregiver in the fattening home and the Efik
society at large.
Skills Acquisition
Based on the findings, there are various skill acquisition
teachings in the fattening room. Maidens are taught language,
craft carving, knitting, dancing, inscription-making, trading and
cooking skills. This is evident in a Key Informant’s description
below:
Another aspect is the craft aspect. They teach you how
to weave. We have our local ndam (wool). They will
teach you the process of knitting ndam; from ndam wool
to other things so that, at the end of the day, you don’t
just believe in buying here, buying there. You are able to
Introduction
35
do your thing and save money. On languages, they will
teach you the regular emesiere (good morning greeting),
ete omoyong (welcome sir), mma omoyong (welcome
madam), idem fo? (how are you?) Amadia mkpo? (have
you eaten?) Mmagha iso fo odo… (I don’t like the way
you are keeping your face). She will try to straighten up
her face because she has heard mmagha iso fo odo. Ndito
idem mbufo..o (Children how are you doing?) Ah!
Grandma idem mi usung or Idem mi isong ke (Grandma
I am feeling well or I am not feeling fine). They will
teach them that. Because most children never knew those
things and their meaning, it is there at the fattening room
that they were taught [this language skill] (KII, R5).
[The making of] special, very special tray covers [is also
taught] and I know that in some other places women
were also taught how to carve the chewing stick. You
know the Efiks have a special way of carving chewing
sticks and these were all thought in the fattening room
(FGDW, R3).
So, one major advantage of the fattening room is the [teaching
of] technical knowledge. All of these bring about creativity [for
the maiden and intending wife].
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
36
Plate 2: The research team and cooperative partners displaying
sample design of textile weaving from nkuho skills acquisition
training
Introduction
37
Morality
The last set of teaching as categorised in this report is morality.
One maiden and another member of the female focus group
discussant confirm to the research team what happens in this
process:
I love the fattening room because it broadens the child’s
intellect. There are certain things you can never learn
outside but you will learn them there. I learned personal
hygiene, social training, self-discipline, cooking,
emotional control, anger management, communication
with your mate, communication with adults and elders,
and home management skills. It was just an institution
where you learn all that you need to know as a woman
(Maiden 5). How you can endure pain, how you can
listen more and talk less, how you can be observant of all
the things around you and learn the lessons, and how you
can take care of yourself emotionally (FGDW, R4).
Consequently, in this process, the spirit and character of
endurance, respect, self-esteem, emotional stability, mental
alertness, and so on, are instilled in them.
Objective 4
This section aims to produce a narrative of the fattening room
practice of the Efik in Nigeria, against the backdrop of
extrapolating a theory on gender, gender role, and identity in
Africa.
The fattening room exercise was one of the ways the Efiks
preserved ancient beliefs, values, and customs. It was a cultural
rite of passage that nurtured the young Efik female from
girlhood to womanhood in a secluded room. The cultural
characteristic of an ideal Efik female is signified in a young
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
38
virgin who had been pampered, ‘schooled’ with social and
psychological resources, and forcefully fed with large portions
of food to attain massive body size, curvaceous hips, and fleshy
waistlines. Focus group discussions with men and women, and
narratives of maidens, parents, caregivers, and key informants
produce narratives which further establish this context:
In my community, men usually go around scouting for
maidens who are going through [the] nkuho institution
(FGDM, R3).
The nkuho in Efik tradition, as far as I know, goes by two
aspects of life. Number one: When a girl-child is born
and grows to the age of between 5 and 10, she is
circumcised. That's the first nkuho. Number two: When
the girl-child is of age or maybe, there is a suitor
interested in her, the parents can decide to put her in a
fattening room. From the fattening room, she is sent out
after a specified time to her husband. It is a very beautiful
cultural perspective in Efik land (FGDM, R5).
You will be in a particular room after the circumcision…
[in] the first one week, you will experience pain. When I
was in the fattening room, I didn't do much. In the
morning, I would eat, I would sleep, I would wake up
and eat again. They would be petting me…When I woke
up in the morning, I would take my bath. They would
now massage my body with native chalk that white
chalk before I even bathe. They would be using that on
me…. After that, I would take my bath and they would
use that same white chalk to rub my body. There is one
yellow [thing] that they also use. I have forgotten its
name. They would use it, mixed with that white chalk
I didn’t use cream – and camwood to design my body. In
Introduction
39
fact, when you eat in the morning, it is for you to lie
down and sleep…They will cook otoh’, ekpang nkukwo.
That first stage early in the morning I don’t always like
because, early in the morning, they will give you garri.
This garri they will soak overnight. Then, the following
day, the garri will be so soft. They will put water in, and
you drink it like water so that it will make you fat. You
will be so fat. The food used to be plenty… They [would]
put food in a big bowl. If it is rice, they will put it in a
tray. If it is garri, there is a particular plate for that a
big plate. You must finish it. But, for me, I used to put a
plate under my bed, when nobody [was around], I would
turn it into that plate and hide because, if you didn’t
finish it, they would talk to you in a way [that] you would
not like. There used to be a time [when] they would teach
me something… [When it is] the end, you know when
they throw the water, so you enter. That day, there were
some people, about 5 or 6 or 7 or 8.... And when they
throw the water you run and enter and, in short, that day,
it was merriment and they drank this ogogoro (ethanol
dry gin) and when I was inside, I was hearing a kind of
celebration. [There were] not many people, but the few
people that were there…they will just buy this ogogoro
and drink it. They use a cup and throw it on the roof and
when the water [comes rushing] down and touches you,
then you run into the house … That evening – you know
in the neighbourhood there are other nkuho then, I used
to pass through the backyard to the other side to meet my
colleagues. Sometimes they knew, maybe three of us
would be in the house. We would talk, we would laugh,
we played, and then they would go or, me too, I would
return back. So, the night that I would come out, they
would throw that water again and I would go out before
coming into the room again...because now, I am free
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
40
after coming out. So I can go anywhere now. On Sunday,
I went to church. They bought me new clothes. They
called people, they cooked. That Monday was the market
day, so as I dressed to the church on Sunday, the same
way I dressed to the market on Monday (Maiden, 2).
…Every morning, they would soak plenty of garri (fried
cassava flakes) in water and leave it for hours to rise and
be very soft such that you can drink it like a smooth
paste. They bathe you and massage you with local white
chalks (ndom). Sometimes, they mix ashes with the
ndom to massage you. You are then given the soaked
garri to drink so that you get fat. If you don’t get fat, they
continue to keep you in the fattening room until they
make sure you get fat. That is why some people are kept
in the room for a very long time. After drinking the garri,
they allow you to sleep. When you wake up, in the
afternoon, they give you food again. In the evening, they
give you other food… They teach you folk songs and
traditional dances... You don’t go out... You don’t wear
clothes, just the local chalk on your body. You can wear
a small top if you have developed breasts. They roll your
hair in knots called ikpok ube. They also decorate your
face. Usually, you lay on a mat for you to sleep on. They
normally don’t want the blood and oil to stain the bed
sheet so you have to sleep on a mat… You are given a
special seat… a round seat that is meant for you alone
while in the fattening room…They also cover your legs
with a cloth, since most of it is bare after the shorts. You
are taken out as a maiden and dressed in special beads
known as okpono on shorts. Your breasts are left bare
while your wrist is adorned with beads. The seat in the
tent is made for your coming-out celebration. The tent
is called mkpoto, which looks more like what you now
Introduction
41
see in traditional weddings. You dance the dance steps
you were taught in the fattening room and people will
dance around you. Although some maidens go to the
market with someone who covers them [with an]
umbrella as they shop for food- stuff, I never went to the
market. But I was taken to church. It was for
thanksgiving and I was dressed normally (Maiden, 4).
They kept me in the house and fed me very well you
know they want to feed you so that you can get fat.
Somebody would come every morning to massage me
with ndom (native chalk) and [do] my hair. My sisters
were big so they taught them how to take care of a home.
People would come and sing and play with us in the
evenings, teaching us how to sing and dance and so on.
If you want to go out, you tell the others, onungo mi,
inungo fi (if you pip on me, I pip on you). Every
morning, this woman would come and open our legs and
check to be sure everything was okay. After about a
month or so, we were dressed and escorted to the market
where people gave us gifts. When we were back [at] the
house, we had a 'Coming of Age' dance in the evening.
After that, we went to church on Sunday to thank God
(P2).
[Most of the time], people misinterpret the practice of
nkuho (fattening room). They think it's just to go there
and get all fat. Yes, I'm fat but I know that it is not all
about that... Just like the Western education teaches us
the Western culture or the Western behaviour in schools,
in universities, colleges, the fattening room is an
institution. So, my parents noticed that many young girls
grow up in certain families where they are pampered and
some parents don't find time to teach them those
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
42
etiquettes of life. So, my parents wanted to instil more of
the cultural practice in their female children. So, we just
went in for the experience or the knowledge. It is now
very typical of some Calabar girls that they don't know
how to prepare the Efik-specific dishes; we have a lot of
them interesting and delicious ones. But there are few
Calabar girls that can prepare those meals. And, with the
way the Western world is taking over, a lot of our
cultural food or practices is fading out of existence... So,
my father wanted us to go there and have this culture-
specific knowledge on what goes around in our
environment... It was when I was 7 years old… as a
matter of fact we just went in there to get knowledge.
There are three types of nkuho. The infant nkuho. The
adolescent nkuho (where young women are groomed by
confinement during which they are taught the rudiments
of marriage) and the childbirth nkuho (allows one to
learn about parenthood and all the necessary knowledge
on how to raise her child, care and give attention to that
child) (Maiden 5).
as I grew older, I discovered that what was done to
my sister on the eighth day was done to some girls in
some homes when they're 5, 6, 7 years of age, when
they're about to start schooling. At this time, they are
kept in the fattening room and fed very well. They are
beautifully dressed on the day they are brought out and
taken to the market. The women will clap and cheer her
with ululation (making the sound as in a demonstration)
Esin okut e nonye (Give money to her) E tor enye ndom
(Rub her with Ndom) Mbok, nonye udia o (Please give
her food o) E nonye mmong o (Give her water o). People
will appreciate her with those things money, ndom,
food items, water, etc. as she is taken round the market.
Introduction
43
Why the market? I don't know. She's taken back to the
house and taken to church the subsequent Sunday. The
Reverend will bless her and she'll go and start schooling.
That's stage one. The next stage is a training school. Like
Ete had rightly said, at this time, there's a suitor waiting
by. She's isolated and taught how to keep her home,
relate with her in-laws, how to take care of her husband
in all ramifications sex, food, petting and other things.
In that same fattening room, she will be taught how to
make mbufari (a tablecloth it must be included in the
items that must accompany bride price), how to cook
menus like ekpang-kukwo, obobot ikon, afang, edikang
ikong... You know, when an Efik girl takes care of a man
maybe a visitor he'll fall in love with her and you will
hear people saying, Ohh, ononye ibok ima! (Ohh, she
gave him a love potion). There's nothing like ibok ima. It
is that art of caring and caregiving that ‘charmed’ the
man into loving her. She's not yet a mother, but she's
taught the art of becoming a mother which is expected to
be soon. When the phase of traditional marriage proper
comes and goes, she is sent into a 9-month course. In
some homes, she will still be taken back into Ufok nkuho
(fattening room) where more massaging on her will be
done. She's fed with plenty of garri soaked and left for
at least twenty-four hours to rise and soften. In three
months’ time, when she's going for christening, she
looks plumpy, sweet, fresh, sexy. The teaching of the art
of a mother continues through all those phases how to
breastfeed a child and a lot of other things, [in a step by
step fashion]. They come out properly trained to do
things orderly and correctly, not like it is with our girls
of today who do things anyhow. She's brought out at the
expiration of three months, celebrated and taken to
church (FGDM, R2).
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
44
…You know, nkuho was divided into three parts. The
first part was the circumcision; the second part was the
fattening of the woman to make her look plump and
healthy. Instructors will come in daily to train her in
different areas and fields of endeavour. Finally, In the
end, the masquerade is brought in as a symbol of
authority and government. Right now, we have the
understanding that Ekpe masquerade also has some
marine connotations. That is why, in some families,
rituals involve them going to Efe Ekpe (Ekpe Hall) to do
libation pouring and invoke some marine powers into
those women before they proceed to their husbands’
house in marriage. However, this last phase does not
apply to nkuho generally. It is not carried out in some
families. So, the fattening room has the positive side and
the negative side depending on the family. But, on the
whole, it was a very good school designed for training
women on all that was necessary how to do well in life
(FGDM, R1).
We have three categories of nkuho…the first is that you
are a child…between the ages of 7 and 12 years…The
second stage is [between] the age of 15 to 18 years…
You don’t know a man yet because, if you know a man
and they take you and cut your clitoris, you will bleed to
death. So, during that period, your grandma will be
monitoring you, and the good thing there is, that each
time you come back from school or stream, they will use
an egg and measure your vagina if it has been tampered
with. They will make sure that they monitor you
seriously until the third term. You know you have first
term and second term in school. They will leave it till the
third term when you will stay at home for a month and
Introduction
45
some weeks. So that is when they do it. It will not affect
your schooling (Caregiver, 1).
It is indeed against this backdrop that it has been documented
and as also highlighted earlier by this key informant that:
there is this nkuho uto owo ndung ufot (nkuho that
gives gifts to the lady). It is not the same thing as nkuho
preparing you for marriage. Preparing you for marriage
is different from making you come of age. At nkuho
preparing you for ndo (marriage) you will be taught all
these things we have mentioned. But for making you an
akwa nwan (full woman). It is expected of us that, as we
are sending out our daughter, we are not just selling her,
so that no husband tomorrow will ask you: ‘When you
came, what did you come with? [Of] everything in this
house, show me what you came with. Not from our tribe.
From our tribe here, [in] sending you off, we are sending
you off fully. They will give you a full parlour setting.
They will give you a kitchen setting. They will give you
a full room setting as you are going to your husband's
house and they will give you good money good money
(KII 5).
this particular seclusion is in her father’s
compound…. She will come out in her maiden's outfit in
which she is adorned. And she comes out and exhibits
her talent… that is on Saturday or Friday. But it is
usually done on Saturday so that she can be sent to the
market. She has to go to the market where every other
nkuho [mates] from different places [and communities]
that have put their children in seclusion also [at] the same
time like her all the nkuho wherever they are will
come together in the market on Saturday. And it is on
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
46
Sunday that the father, the parent of the nkuho will invite
everybody to come. They will give her an umbrella,
[have her] wear her socks and gloves, and a small hat and
a crown to walk to church that is, nkuho goes to church.
First, nkuho goes to market. Second, nkuho goes to
church to thank God. After that is a big ceremony in their
compound… where she will come out and dance and
dance and dance. Again that is the first. But the second
is not like that. [With the second], it is believed that she
is put in seclusion to be given out in marriage. It means
the first and second letter is given already and they
[were] taught [how] they responded, where the father
[was to] respond when the girl is put in seclusion
(Caregiver, 1).
… it is a rite of passage for a girl-child, you must start at
the early age of 10..., between 10 and 18. By 10, we call
it, 'nkuho eyen owon'. That is, as a girl-child, they will
put you in a fattening room, separate, to prepare you to
become a teen and going into adulthood…And it is
expected to be that, when you are there at that time
maybe two, three... assuming you are 10 you stay there
for 3 years. That is, you're 13, you are a teen… You wake
up, [and] your caregiver will now come in and be giving
you training on how to become a full-grown woman
the food you will be cooking, how to do your laundry,
how to dress your house, the cleaning aspects, the
sanitary aspects of your own body and the family that
you are going in [to], your house, your environment and
your dance steps when it is the day that you will be
coming out to see people (Caregiver 2).
…I was there. My grandma would take me and bathe me.
She would take me to the backyard and she would
Introduction
47
continue pressing the wound…She would massage me.
She will use white clay…there is a special leaf the
Edada mmeme leaf which she used to massage me. Then
you don’t go out. They will still put clay inside the water
and rub you. Then you will sit on a mat on the floor. So
they will bring you food and water. Early in the morning,
they will give you garri that they soaked overnight to sip
and you [are not allowed to] use a spoon. You will drink
it in a big bowl [laughs] so that you will be fat now. We
have a special seat that you will sit on, so nobody sits
there…You will be well drilled and taught. And they will
make sure that you internalise them…You must sleep,
you must eat because it is assumed that, by the time you
are to come out from the fattening room, you should be
[voluptuous]… They will teach you how to dance
different dance steps… They teach you ‘nke[She sang
the song making the sound that was used with her mouth
and hands]. They taught us how to tell stories; poems
proverbs and all those kinds of things…When the
moonlight comes out, [all you fellow maidens that were
circumcised], will come out…When it is close to the
coming-out ceremony, they will come around then you
will come and sing and dance together and go to the
market. When you go to the market, they will [gift
money to us]… You just walk around, with an umbrella.
You will be well dressed… Immediately they see you
they will be hailing you o.. nkuho edi udua..o” (Nkuho
has come to the market..o)… After coming from the
church, first before we move to the market… people will
then dash you money …They will admire you and then,
from the market, you will now go home and you come to
sit on mkpoto…That is when the ceremony will begin
and that will happen from around 5:30pm downwards…
People will come out and dance…If you are from a royal
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
48
home, they will dress in our Efik traditional dress. They
will dance. You too, you will dance, too. The mother of
the girl will come and she will put this white chalk in
water and rub it on the girls, saying ‘My daughter has
passed through nkuho...o (mmo no eyen mi
nkuho..o)…(Maiden, 1).
… if we want to discuss nkuho, we have to follow it step
by step…from the first day and the rites and the last day
and the rites. So this for me rounds up the narrative for
nkuho. You know [how] to prepare your daughter for
womanhood in terms of what is expected of her as a
grown-up. You start from a process. You know the first
process is the seclusion rites …and the seclusion rites
begin with circumcision…So, we have the seclusion
house/room prepared, so you have to put her in a
seclusion room a room where nobody can have access
to, usually in the backyard. In the configuration of her
ancient cultural compound, there are some cultural
things that need to be done…You then have to use palm
fronds to picket the doors and the room that is going to
be used for the circumcision rites… ensuring that it is
fortified traditionally by all powers against every power
that will want to come and put your daughter’s life in
danger… If somebody comes there with an evil mind, he
or she should not be able to cross that picket yard to enter
the room. The evil must not be able to penetrate that
house… Usually, there is a particular plant called ‘urun
in my local language. It must be there at the entrance to
that room… So, while this seclusion room is being
prepared, also your ban, your storehouse how many
yam tubers have you gathered? How long will they last?
Is it for one planting season? How long do you plan to
put her in the room? What is/are physiological attributes?
Introduction
49
Nkuho is about eating, feeding, forceful feeding
There is ukang ukum (cowtail plantain). There is edesi
(rice). There is edita iwa (slice cassava or Tapioca)… to
make her outgrow her age; to make her outgrow nature;
to make her so grown to fulfil somebody’s fantasy; to see
her beautiful that is who we are. In my family, [by] 6
O’clock in the morning, you are fed with one bowl of
water. By 6:10am, they bring a bowl of garri, soaked,
and one long big fish. By 6:15am, you are given pounded
yam and soup. The food cycle ticks round the clock at
most a ten-fifteen-minute interval. They had their own
belief and so the girl-child who must undergo nkuho
must go through this painful process (of circumcision)…
The woman who is vested [with the task of] doing the
circumcision would have been there. [she is seen as a]
woman walking in with her small girl, holding her bag
that contains the implements and her red flag and a round
bell and a pot…The girl is pinned down by young men
… She will chop off part of the girl’s genitalia and then
she stops the blood using native leaves… Because of the
traditional things being used, after three days, the
circumcision would have dried up and blackened up with
the herbs African traditional herbs that have been used.
If, after four or five days, the wound is still fresh, then
there is a problem; something must have gone wrong.
Within the house, another school begins...for humanity,
for people that she will interact with, for the man she will
marry, for the society and the people she will live with
(KII, 1).
Furthermore, participation in the fattening room exercise
provided social integration, personal standards or prestige,
statuses, social regulatory mechanisms, and identity, against
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
50
which the Efiks regulated their own behaviour and societal
expectations:
The parents that get their children through the nkuho
process are respected for respecting and maintaining the
family value. It was a common practice in the 60s to the
80s. But, it is no more popular today because of the
changes and the technology of the new world (FGDM,
R5).
So, I am a man. I have children [and] I want to showcase
my daughters, and I will tell you in the next season or so
many seasons to come, it is either I am preparing my
daughters for marriage to a king’s son, a prince or so. So,
like a fatted cow or a Good Shepherd that wants to go for
an agricultural show, you want to showcase your ‘fatted’
or your best cow, your best bull. You want to bring it out
for people to see. It comes from deep within; it is a thing
of pride to showcase. So, to get to that point where you
probably showcase your valued asset to the public to see
so that they can begin to price. So, in this case, the nkuho
is being prepared so that others can come and see. For
instance, back in the day, I [could] see a small child, who
[would] go to the stream even at age ten and I [could]
say, ‘Okay I am going to betroth this girl for my son. I
believe my son will marry this one’, and I do some stuff,
the needful. It, therefore, behoves me as a parent to bring
up this child in such a way and manner that, every day,
as I am passing by, you will be hastening the time laps
for her growth, so that they can come and carry her…
(KII, 1).
I am an indigene of Calabar, Efik, to be precise. I am
from Ikot Nkpam Nkpan. My parents are both Efiks. My
Introduction
51
Dad is a traditionalist, a cultural man. He was interested
in the culture of his people. I used to live outside with
my parents when my father was alive he is late. He was
a civil servant working with the Nigerian Embassy
before he got posted to various countries as his job
permitted. We used to accompany him. Since we were
seven girls, he wanted us to have a firsthand experience
of our culture and inherit something from our culture
which is the practice of nkuho (Maiden 5).
A typical Efik man will be very proud of marrying a
well-groomed woman… Yeah! …the ego of an Efik
man. He wants to see [his] wife serve him very well. So
he will really bring out the cash. So he uses the cash to
take care of [himself]... He wants to be behind and the
wife [who is] in front, [while he] raises his shoulder
this is my pride. (FGDW, 4).
It is a [thing of] pride…you go through the process
and you come out feeling different. You come out feeling
you've achieved something. You know, you are ready for
something (KII, 4).
[Singing] Mbre ye afo so, mma mma anwan etete...kpok
mbara-ukot, kpok ubok..o, yak edifo etie do, ada enye
odo anam asian..o, mbre ye afo so... This particular song
connotes that, anybody who does not pass through the
rites of passage has no right to enter where other girls are
staying because they will abuse her saying, mma mma
anwan etete (cut your fingernail, cut your toenails too,
but leave your long clitoris to be there, so that you may
use it to make love as a man). That will make you run
away [as a girl who has not undergone female
circumcision]. Anybody in the village [who] does not
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
52
pass through the rites of passage every maiden in the
village will abuse her as they sing that [song], nobody in
the village will tell them to go away. They will [by
themselves] run away (Caregiver 1).
…[Emphatically] Then, there used to be this belief that
it was only a rich father that could afford to put their
daughter in the fattening room, feed her and bring people
to teach her. The food the caregivers cook is not only for
the girl. [The caregivers] too will take [part of it] away.
So, it was only a rich home that could afford that so I had
that good feeling (Maiden 6).
As a caregiver, you are recognised in the whole village
and being talked about. That is part of [the]
compensation (Caregiver 2).
In addition, the fattening room exercise was an intentional
attempt to promote chastity, curb pre-marital sex, and prevent
promiscuity and extra-marital affairs among Efik females. Thus,
female children were coaxed into having their clitorises
removed. Female circumcision, therefore, was at the core of the
exercise as detailed in the earlier narratives and those following
from here:
… when they bring you in during that time they will not
tell you that today is your day. In short the day you start
seeing them dash [out] food, big meat, big fish, roasted
plantain [to you], they want to make your mind settle and
be at peace. In fact, you can see your grandma go and
bring you fine cloth and dash [it out to] you so as to settle
your mind; because, if you know that tomorrow they will
temper with [your] genitals, you will run away… you
will escape. So, they will pet you, then, early in the
Introduction
53
morning, before 5am, they will trick you to go and take
your bath. ‘We want to go for morning prayers’ (‘Akam
Usen ubok’ early morning prayer) and your head will
be [swollen] because they have [gifted] you this and that.
And then, when you come out, because you will be
happy to follow them, then they will take you out of your
room. You must have dressed and worn your pants.
Then, my grandma would ask, ‘What kind of pants are
you wearing? What type of dress is this? Go and change
it. Let me give you something that will take you to where
we are going.’ When you go to remove your clothes and
wear a new attire, from there, you will see a man and,
before you go to that place, they will do the circumcision.
They put fresh plantain leaves on the floor and then they
put deadwood on top of it. And then you come and they
say, ‘Lie down.’ And, before you say you want to run,
you can’t run because this man standing there will grab
you and you will be shouting ekaeka mi o’ (O my
grandmother!) Your grandmother will be telling you that
it doesn’t [hurt] that she is the one that bought everything
for you. ‘In fact, if it [hurts], I am going to buy another
thing for you.’ Then, you will lie down and a man will
sit on your chest facing this side so that he won’t see [the
circumcision process]. Usually about three men… Then,
another man will hold your right leg and another your
left leg. The man who sits on your chest is handling your
two hands and is not as nowadays that they will bring
two blades. They bring their instrument and keep it on
the deadwood and then they cut off your clitoris. In fact,
the Efik people are wonderful. They dissected and
removed everything. They have a reason for doing that…
According to my grandmother and the Efik people in
general, it is to stop promiscuity (Caregiver 1).
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
54
The Efik man believed… that a certain physiological
element of the female genitalia can lead to promiscuity
if not chopped off in the process of this nkuho… (KII, 1).
I had the experience as a child when I was 7 years old.
We were three [girls]. I was the youngest and, that
morning, my grandmother told us that some people were
coming to see us, to take care of us and examine us. We
said, okay. Early in the morning, we had our bath. We
were told not to wear our pants. They had plucked a
particular leaf called Eden idoduot, squeezed the juice
out of it, poured the same all over our bodies and gave
us some to drink. About seven elderly women came
around, took me to the bedroom, pulled my dress and laid
me on the ordinary floor. One of the women sat across
my chest and the other two held my legs and brought a
knife called akadang. They told me that they wanted to
do something but they would not harm me and that I
should not shout; [and that] if I must shout, I shouldn't
say mma akpa o (I'm dead o) because if I said so, I would
die. Then they cut me all over. There was a lot of
bleeding but they managed to stop it. When they
finished, they told me not to go out. I was a very young
person and did not really mind the wound but you would
have to keep your legs apart when walking.
The thing is, they did not even tell us about it. We were
told that some people were coming to take care of us. It
was only in my time that I told my daughters about it
before they went into it because they had heard my
mother and my grandmother complaining about them.
They knew but they were scared. So, I assured them that
nothing would go wrong with it (P2).
Introduction
55
It was my parents that forced me go through the process
because they felt that they didn’t want me to grow like a
man. They said, ‘When you grow like that, you resemble
a man…’ That, without your clitoris being cut, you are
just like a man that it grows as your body is growing
and some will even grow longer than the body and come
out looking like a penis so that, when you are wearing
the pants, it would rub on the pants and touch the pants.
They felt it would bring sexual arousal. That is why it
needs to be [cut]… I don’t just sit and feel like having
sex like some people say; I don’t feel such things until I
am being touched by a man (Maiden 4).
But I know that, from what I have seen, most of the girls
are able to stay with a man. You could date one person
for a long time ... and you are faithful in sexual
relationship until you move out of that relationship. But
I think, because my elder sister was like that, I am like
that and I have other girls who have been like that. You
are able to stay in a relationship... (KII 4).
…It was then year 6 or 7 [when] the child was expected
to start Elementary One. There was this general belief
that we all had [sexual] feelings, that even a child had
[sexual] feelings and they were careful not to let
somebody touch the child in an unpleasant place so that
she would not feel anything. There was this belief that,
once circumcision is done, all feelings are gone (KII 5).
…It was my parents' decision. In fact… I did not want to
go into it because I have already seen people that are
doing it. They used to shout, so I did not want to
experience it. But they did it to me when I did not
know…I was a kid,… like 38 years ago before I entered
my Secondary School [years] I was in the fattening
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
56
room, say [about] six months… If you are in school,
maybe primary school, you might be circumcised when
the school is on vacation… because your parents by that
time…know that you are a virgin. From the first day
before I was even circumcised, I didn’t know. My
grandma asked me to go and take my bath, clean my
body and, after finishing, they [called] men to come and
hold me. I wanted to be circumcised because my elder
sister did it. And, by the way, when you want to come
out from the circumcision the way they treat them will
make someone want to do it [laughing]. I bathed, then
my grandma called me into the backyard for the
circumcision. I never knew, they tricked me. As soon as
I got to the backyard they had [spread] plantain leaves on
the floor. And, the next minute, they called two guys.
They came in. One other woman came in and, before I
knew it, they asked me to lie down on the plantain
leaves…I removed my clothes and they asked me to lie
down and one guy sat on my chest the other person
would hold my legs and the woman who was to
circumcise would come in and do what she was asked to
do…After that, I went to take my bath, because you
won’t be able to stand..., they’d hold you. Then the lady
would be coming to use hot water to press it until the
pain would subside…It is a woman who normally
[carries out this process]… a caregiver in the
community. It is like you say, for example, home
delivery from traditional birth attendants (Maiden 1).
As for my children, I was reluctant to put them through
that process. I was literally forced by my grandmother
and parents to do it. They [cited] a lot of disadvantages
for not doing it, making me see reasons why I must do it.
They said without removing the clitoris, the children
Introduction
57
would be wayward, they would have difficulty during
labour when giving birth to children… (P2).
…I was thirteen… (I was there) for just one month
because it was during my third term holiday, after my
primary school…I was going to secondary school. From
day one, they circumcised me…A mature woman, a big
woman. I think it [was] a woman [who] did not meet a
man again, she [was] the one that [was] handling that
circumcision… Because, then, I didn’t know a man.
They did it to me; they cut it. They held my legs. Three
men held my legs because I was in fear… because I was
lying down like this, you know. I heard the story of it so
I was running. I did not want it. So when I got to the
village for holiday, I went to my grandmother's place.
That was where they did it… very early in the morning.
They now pet me and called me. I bathed. It was a
planned [thing]. They now told me to go to the backyard.
When I went to the backyard, I started feeling something
as they called me early in the morning that I should take
my bath. So I was feeling something…When I took my
bath, they now led me to where they would do the
[thing]. Those men were already there…They put me
down on the plantain leaves on the ground. I was crying,
so they held me…One person was sitting on my chest…I
cannot even raise my leg…the woman was petting me as
I [went] naked…I was naked. She was pressing my
clitoris just talking to me [and] petting me saying don’t
worry it will not [hurt]. She was doing it like that until
she cut it off [at once]. It was painful. In short, at that
particular time, it did not [hurt] too much because it was
soft. But, after that, I felt the pain. So after that, you will
go inside the house. Nobody would see you again
(Maiden 2).
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58
It always happens in the morning. On the first day, they
wake you by 5:30am or 6am and ask you to have your
bath, because you cannot bathe after the circumcision.
You have to bathe before the circumcision. Then you go
to the backyard where they have plantain trees. They cut
some fresh plantain leaves which they use as a mat for
you to lie naked. Your legs are held by two people. Then,
a native nurse comes with scissors and a razor, after
which they massage the clitoris to make it soft before
cutting it... It was painful because, in those days, there
was nothing like giving you an injection to reduce the
pain. It was painful …it was done in our house, so that
[one] can be helped into the room since [one] won’t be
able to walk on one’s own. To reduce the bleeding, there
is a leaf that is squeezed into the injury, which stops it.
When it stops, they use water diluted in Dettol to clean
your entire body and take you to the house. After that,
they come every morning to dress you up. They use the
native pot, the small one, which they heat and add oil,
then water and something else. When this mixture is
ready, they use the chicken feather to dip in and rub you
instead of their hands. After they have used warm water
to massage the wound, they use the chicken feather,
dipped in palm oil to [clean] the surface of the wound...
To add to what Respondents 3 and 5 have said, I will go
a little into the past. I grew up as a child with my
grandmother and I had just a sister. When she was born,
on the 8th day, the ‘baby nkuho that the chief talked
about, was done to my sister. As tender as I was, I asked
my grandmother why they had to ‘wound’ my sister. She
told me that there was the belief that, if the girl child was
not circumcised, she would miss her steps in life. ‘Miss
her steps, how?’ I asked her. She then said something
Introduction
59
about 'Nsan awan' (street loitering), meaning infidelity
or sexual immorality (FGDM, 2).
Indeed, of an interesting significance is the presentation of
nkuho as a ‘school’. Asides teachings centered on improved
childcare and personal healthcare, cookery, folklore, songs,
cultural dances, homemaking, etc., findings revealed how words
and actions framed by the Efik woman culminated in marital
harmony.
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
60
Plates 3 and 4: Maidens friends during the outing ceremony to mark
the end of the fattening room in a carnivalesque
display (2021 fieldwork material)
At its core are the stereotypic beliefs which formed behavioural
patterns and task specialisation around the female person.
Therefore, there are noticeable differences between females who
underwent the fattening room and those who did not:
The very first one that I experienced was… about 38
years ago… when my [older] sister's first daughter was
put in the fattening room. And so, I was assigned in order
to take care of her, train her, teach her what she needed
to know; give her the experiences of how to become a
woman, because that is a rite of passage for a girl-child
(Caregiver 2).
Nkuho is an institution made specifically for the training
of the girl-child from childhood to teenage [years] and
adulthood. It is all about training your daughter or girl-
Introduction
61
child on home management, to be able to cater for her
home when she gets married to her husband. In the
fattening room, she will be taught how to run home
chores, how to prepare different types of food and
pamper, and maybe [get] betrothed to a man (FGDM,
R3),
The fattening room is a home for young maidens, and, in
that home, special things are provided. When I say
‘special things’, the grooming, general grooming from
the way your home is made up, your meals, the games
you play, the massaging, and all other things. So the
fattening room is a really, really beautiful place to be in
(FGDW, P1).
I see the fattening room as a complete school for the Efik
[woman] just as it has been said earlier where you
have all forms of vocational training. She is trained on
how to dance, how to cook, how to make beads and mats
and other crafts plus many other training including
behaviours and proper interaction with people and how
to plan for your future. It was complete training. Looking
at it critically, some communities brought in Ekpe
masquerade at the end of it (FGDM, R1).
The fattening room is an interesting experience and I
wish we could continue to put our children through,
because, there in the fattening room, you are not just
eating and sleeping; you are being taught some domestic
crafts how to make the cloth to cover the dish you are
presenting to your husband; how to design beautiful table
cover; how to keep your room clean in details not like
the one you are teaching a growing child in a hurry. I was
taught how to speak to an adult, how to speak to my
husband, how to react when he is angry, how to make
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
62
dishes, how to present them, how to care for your
children when you start having them, how to clean up the
child and how to keep the napkins when you are not yet
ready to wash. I was taught how to manage my life
without a [housekeeper], how to do ‘a hundred things’ at
once (bemused). It was fun, fun, fun... And then you eat
all sorts of dishes. You rest, you clean yourself up
(Maiden 6).
…It is very important for a woman to go through the
fattening room because that is where she's groomed. That
is where she is moulded. Apart from being moulded for
her home, she’s trained to fit into the society also. She is
taught a whole lot of things. She's taught how to be
independent in her home and even in her society. So, to
me, it is important that every woman should go through
that process before going into the society…Well, I don't
know who started it, but I know that a decision is taken
maybe by the father ... because of infidelity. It was
important to get the female child through that process.
And immediately after that, she goes into (the room)
because everything is together. You are taught to know
that you are for one man and then you have to take care
of your home (KII, 4).
…Let me use myself as an example: anywhere he is,
even if he is going to commit, he will have the courtesy
to tell me, ‘O baby, mbok ndu ke itie ntem ntem (I'm
here in so and so place.’ Even if he is lying, it is a sign
of respect. If somebody does not respect you, they will
not lie to you to cover up their sin…Probably you know
he is lying but for the fact that he has respected you and
not flaunting it, you pretend... And then you treat him
well when he comes. Even if he has 1 naira, he will tell
you, ‘I have this 1 naira o, I wanted to use it for…’. You
Introduction
63
say, ‘no, o, I think I needed it for this o…’ He will say,
‘Okay na, if you say so’. You know, you're being a baby
all the time. He'll say, ‘Okay, take na, take na’. Are you
not having more rights? You are having! And anywhere
he [is], he will say, ‘Ah, my wife will be worried, she is
expecting me.’ He will be longing to get back to his
home. And then the people outside will say he has been
given a love potion. Every man wants to get back home
every time when the home is peaceful and loving, and
then the relatives will say, ‘Oh my brother is gone, he
has eaten the love portion.’ There is no love potion… and
when he knows that it is his wife that will stand to cook
his food; he will be eager to come back home... We were
also taught that you don't have rights over your body.
And the man is human to know when you have
overworked and he will understand that you are
overworked. So he won’t want to come disturbing you.
But if nature makes him come asking, don't say no. If
you must say no, let it be on [terms of] agreement let
him understand. We were taught not to ever deny him of
our body even if [and] when you are quarrelling, it
should not [get to] that level. In fact, we were taught that
the quarrel should be settled there (in sex) (Maiden 6).
nkuho is one of our most beautiful, intricate, often
misconstrued but highly sophisticated [aspects of]
culture that we have. In terms of its processes, in terms
of its philosophy, in terms of its outcomes... Just a
diversion When I was growing up, I used to hear my
uncle that went to sojourn in other places like Lagos say
that anybody there that is going to Calabar to work if
you are not from there and you are going to Calabar to
work they will do all sought things. They don’t touch
the Calabar woman. They will say a Calabar woman is
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
64
this, a Calabar woman is that; a Calabar woman once
you eat their food and once you touch her you will not
return home and blahblahblah! That is why I say it is
often misconstrued because all of the fears expressed, all
of the anxieties, all of the uncertainties that if you go
to Calabar [you] don’t touch the Calabar woman – once
they transfer your child to Calabar you will say, Chei!
You have lost this child, he will not come back...o [that],
even if you are married, [the] Calabar woman will hold
your husband. It was in a way a misconstrued [manner]
of telling the story of the Efik woman. The nkuho tells
the story of the Efik woman a well cultured, well
rounded, well brought up, well nurtured, well doctored,
prepared Efik woman. In my culture, the Efik woman is
supposed to be a rounded woman as you can see from
Dr. Edisua (referring to the Interviewer). So the Efik
woman should be rounded. So nkuho is like the Efik
pageant that showcases that roundedness of the Efik
woman not these tiny things we see on the television in
other cultures [where, if] you are going for beauty a
contest, they measure you by the number of bones in
your rib cage or the dip valleys on your neck and the
thickness of your waist… So that is what goes for beauty
in those cultures. But, here in Efik land, what goes for
beauty so to speak if you say the Efik beauty
pageantry, it is an array of nkuho, so my family wants to
show up. This is nkuho from Ekpenyong Abasi family,
nkuho from Abasi Ita family. So they line up and you sit
back and you see. You take pride in the thickness of the
cheekbone showing how much you were able to
massage, how much work was put in the fattening room.
To cut long story short, nkuho is our [cultural pride] and
depends on the sophistication of the female folk for
marriage, for coming of age, for childbirth, for husband
Introduction
65
and for being able to take care of your home and it starts
as a process. As a process, it starts somewhere and ends
somewhere, from seclusion ritesto the coming-out rites
(KII 1).
The fattening room makes it possible for the girl-child to
learn those things. But, if she doesn't pass through it, she
doesn't really have the time. And if she has a mother who
didn't pass through also, it is equally very difficult, you
know. If the mother didn't go through it, what is she
going to teach the daughter? (KII 4)
In the fattening room, you know, there is a lot of
storytelling, especially at the first stage. They teach them
songs [sings in efik dialect Ekpe ino ebot mi, mmangha
ti mmagimag]... at that level. So, that is where we have
storytelling. Even in NAFEST these days, we have
storytelling for children. CIABAS for this year (2020),
we have storytelling for children. So, at that stage, you
teach them that and they grow with that and so on (KII
5).
[Sings…] Nkaka arian ke Ibaka, akparawa ete ndi mma
imo… nkedi arian nkedighe ima, epe edi oro ikpidikhe
mi, kumba kumba kumba kumba…. It is a form of
‘konkoma’ that they teach them... It is a love song
meaning ‘I went to buy oil in Ibaka village. A young man
came and asked me out. I told him I came to buy oil [and]
not to fall in love, if it was love, I would not have come
here kumba kumba kumba kumba... (Caregiver 1).
The folktales have embedded lessons that instruct
…about life, how older people lived their lives and help
bring those memories [back] to you. Through the
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66
folktales, they teach you good morals and values
stories that teach you how to live in [the] future and relate
kindly with people. Mothers will also come in day by day
to impart you positive values...They have impacted me a
lot because I really learned how to stay with people, how
to appreciate people no matter who they are and how
they look. For instance, I am the highest-ranking
[person] in this office, but I take everyone as my sister
and brother because of how I was brought up....It has
helped me to live with people… I am a single mother…
I have been able to raise my son who is doing his
Masters. He is submissive and responsible. It is not easy
to raise a male child; everybody knows that. It was the
training I got from the nkuho practice that helped me to
raise him that way and to even be able to cater for his
needs and mine. I modelled a good life for him to follow
and he did.... It has impacted much on my life. In the
fattening room, I was taught not to keep my armpit and
pubic hairs. I was taught how to bathe in the morning and
evening, how to brush my teeth and I do them to keep
myself hygienic (Maiden 4).
… the behaviour of a girl-child that has passed through
the rites of passage is different from a child that has not
passed through the rites of passage…If you put two of
them together, the one that has passed through the rites
of passage will take it all because she knows what is
involved in taking care of the home. She knows what it
takes to take care of herself. She knows the traditional
education that she passed through. She will exhibit it in
her home, whereas this other one that has not passed
through it let me say the woman or girl of today will
sit and say, ‘Honey, when coming home bring me Mr
Biggs.’ She will sleep until it is time for her husband to
Introduction
67
go to work. One Zee World is on play … African Magic
is on. ‘Honey, please, please, please I don’t want to miss
this and the house girl now becomes the madam.’ Why
won’t the house girl have sex with your husband because
it is the house girl that cooks, washes clothes….
Therefore, the house girl has the opportunity to [serve]
the husband. If the house girl has the opportunity to serve
my husband, the house girl that knows everything and
does everything… Therefore, the one that has passed
through the rites of passage won’t allow you [to] serve
the husband. You can prepare everything for her but she
is the one that turns the soup. Waterleaf, you pluck it.
She is the one that washes the leaves, and if you wash
the leaves and bring them, she will have the final say…
(Caregiver 1).
…The few persons that I have known who are within the
age range of my mother and went through the process are
all still living with their husbands or, at least, I have not
seen any of them leave their husband’s home. I know a
girl, about 17 years of age who was circumcised, living
with me. I haven’t really asked her about the duration she
stayed in the fattening room. You seem to see her act
differently from a lot of other girls in my environment.
She is more cultured. Yes, some girls may not have been
in the fattening room but still cultured she is very
conscious of herself and her environment. When she sees
you and greets you, she just seems to disappear. She sits
with her legs closed, she’s mindful of the things she
says… I attribute those qualities to her experience in the
fattening room, especially when I compare her with the
other women around (who didn’t go through the
fattening room) (Maiden 5).
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68
…When I was seven, my parents [would] take us to the
village and we would meet some of our cousins. These
cousins showed great skills in how they cooked and
managed the house, going about their respective chores.
When I went to the village and met children of my age
doing things I could not do like carrying 25L of water
on their heads, while I who grew up in town and
pampered could barely carry 10L seeing them washing
clothes at that age and selecting leaves and they're doing
it so well I got interested in knowing how they were
able to do that at their age…For us, it was an amazing
thing really and this made us decide to have the nkuho
experience (Maiden 5).
Largely, symbolic representations with the traditional white
chalk, facial paintings, and ornamental designs were also tools
for schooling in the fattening room as earlier stated and as a key
informant iterated:
…While they were in the fattening room, the nkuho
attendants could use the white chalk to give a certain
design (shows the interviewer the symbol)… serpentine
movement [meaning] that, as you are leaving this
fattening room, life is not a straightforward thing. Life is
not a bed of roses, as you are going out there if you think
marriage is just a straight line thing. No, marriage has so
many challenges. so don’t expect any straight line
pattern of life in your marriage. You will see curves all
over and, when those curves come, you have to develop
a thick skin to withstand them so that your marriage will
stand…. Two, the flowery pattern on their face, teaches
them that you must always package yourself not [that],
when you were seen, you were a sweet-looking girl, but,
just one drop, you turn yourself to ekaeka (that is,
Introduction
69
grandmother or old woman)… Still maintain yourself
and your husband will not go looking right, left, back and
front. And they do that through the facial design [that]
they make on them. Most of those [brass tray] designs
are also encrypted on the brass plates that you use in
serving guests when they come. That [is what] you use
in decorating your house. All of them have codes of love,
codes of fairness about life, codes of being
straightforward in life, codes of harmonization in life.
Without these codes as they will teach you you may
not really succeed in life (KII 1).
As mentioned, the duration of the fattening room was dependent
on two main factors, namely the economic status of the maiden’s
parents, and the window of school holidays as revealed by
Maiden 1:
It depends on your parents and it depends on your age or
the family you come from. Someone can stay six months.
Someone has stayed six years. Someone has stayed three
months…. Automatically, the time depends on the
school vacation period…. Before you put the child in
seclusion, you must consider when the school is on
vacation and when it will resume and then put the child
in the fattening room (Maiden 1).
The significance of culture, beliefs, superstitions, as well as its
implications, are also evidenced:
Before you become a caregiver, you must have been
initiated into the cult of womanhood… You must have
been circumcised; that is, you must have passed through
the first circumcision (Caregiver 1).
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You can’t wear any other clothes. It is the ufong ukot
anwan. The ufong ukot anwan is an attire. I saw a role-
play. They (referring to the research team) have already
gotten it. It is our traditional maiden outfit which
comprises ekpaku’, the Efik-worn hand-band and the
throng beads. That is what is used to dance. (Caregiver
1).
…Apart from the Efiks, the Yorubas have their culture.
The Ibos have their culture> Every other person, the
Hausas have their culture and they train their daughters
even though they do not pass through the rites of
passage. And [as] the girl-child, they will train you on
cuisines their own types of cuisines. You know I grew
up in Yoruba, I was privileged to be with Hubert
Ogunde’s wives because I am an artiste, pioneer artiste
of the National Troupe of Nigeria. We were groomed in
Ozaza. You need to see these women. You know the
Yorubas they have adages and then, in my quest to
want to know, by the time their wives are ready in the
kitchen, they will send you.… (Caregiver 1)
Well, what I heard is that they took it to the backyard.
They put it and then they planted plantain in that place….
At that time, I did not know. But what I know is that
because I noticed they keep it there it was after they
said, ‘Oh, that is where they put mmama mbobi
something. So the plantain will be growing and they will
say ‘that is mmama’s plantain’. After that, they will put
you in a particular room that nobody will have access to
you, nobody…for the whole month… without seeing
anybody. But, sometimes, when my mother [went] to the
market, I would come out and [be] peeping. And, when
she was going out, she would say, ‘Don’t go out...
Introduction
71
because when you go out, your body will go down. [That
is] because my body then was [plump]. I was so plump
that she [would say] that [if] I went out, my body would
go down. So, I would not go outside. So that somebody
would not see me, I would just be doing everything
inside the house (Maiden 2).
This is how you will know the girl who was having [sex]
before that time of circumcision because the wound
would refuse to heal (Caregiver 1).
Gender Roles for the Efik Male and Female
Gender discourses present a vast topic of research that has been
pursued within different theoretical frameworks. They have,
over time, produced numerous empirical insights. Thus,
responses about gender roles and their implications with regard
to the fattening room experience extend the existing perspectives
on the effects and influence of traditional gender roles, which
develop as society observes male and female behaviours and
their corresponding tendencies. In a traditional African society
such as Nigeria, men and women are variously assigned social
roles because of humans’ sexual dimorphism or evolved
physical sex differences. Given these physical differences,
certain activities are assumed to be more efficiently
accomplished by one sex or the other. However, these task
specialisations or gender roles produce alliance between women
and men among the Efik as they engage in what seems to be a
division of labour (or roles), which also deepens the interests of
the community as narrated in this instance:
Before now, the girl-child was seen as one that should be
in the kitchen, helping [her] mother to put the family’s
domestics in place. But, these days, as we have seen, they
are now learned. The girl-child that we knew then was
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72
different from the girl-child [from the girl-child that] we
know now, who is learned and [is] aspiring for greater
heights in life. So, there is a lot of enhancement and
improvement educationally and otherwise, for the Efik
girl-child (FGDM, R2).
To add to what the last speaker said, I want to clarify a
little on how the Efik see the girl-child, what he said is
normal as obtained in this modern age. But before the
coming of the Europeans, we took our culture from what
God Himself did. Our women had been seen the same
way the men are seen our partner in life. A man cannot
live without a woman, so, we regard both men and
women as equal. What is good for the man is also good
for the woman. When the Europeans came, education
came. And because we regard women as delicate and not
able to withstand insecurity and threats, there we are not
allowed to go out and access or receive education... A
woman cannot fight a lion when the lion approaches her.
So we always put them at home and only the men go out.
Let me tell you that the main reason women were not
sent to get education at that time was that they did not
have equal strength like men to withstand the rigours. So,
they were to be in the house, preparing the house, while
waiting for the man that went out hunting for the feeding
of the house (FGDM, R4).
More so, assumptions around gender roles arise because of
society’s observation of female and male behaviour, which
almost always result in a dichotomy in gender-specific
environments. Thus, men and women are thought to possess
attributes that equip them for sex-based or gender-based roles.
At any rate, the fattening room exercise of the Efik presented
gender roles that are responsive to their cultural and
Introduction
73
environmental conditions and expectations such that equip the
women for extensive socialisation, and promote personality
traits and skills that engender role performance as the
‘homemaker’, ‘nurturer’, etc. as reported below:
…During the time you are in the fattening room, formal
education is out of the question because it was believed
that, as a woman, you should manage the home.
Assuming you stay in the house for seven years, from 16
that you are being put in the fattening room, when are
you going to be [attending] school in order to learn to be
educated? So, I think that is a disadvantage. (FGDW,
P4).
…You know that, generally, it is believed that women
are homemakers and, to be a homemaker, you have to be
groomed to achieve that for the family. So that is why
school is so important for women and not men. You
know it is believed that it is women who groom the
family and not men. Maybe that is why school is there
for the women (FGDW, P1).
…I think the fattening room is for the benefit of men
because women are being polished to be able to take care
of men; so they do not play any major role [general
laughter] (FGDW, P4).
… You are the one to help him remove his shirt or singlet
and then he throws a towel on his shoulder. Take the
towel, remove his singlet because both of you are
friends. Tell him, ‘your water is ready’ and, when you
keep his water, you also keep his food and you are
patting him ete mmen edem for di’, meaning, ‘bring
your back’…You are patting his back for him while he
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74
is eating. Should he cough while eating, immediately you
get up and put water for him to drink. And, the worst of
it, in the course of eating, let the man fart, you have to
tell him, ‘Papa sorry, oh papa how are you feeling? ... So,
these are [some of] those things that make the outsiders
think that, if you go and leave your husband for a Calabar
woman, that the Calabar woman will take him, that they
have Kop nno mi(love potion). These were the only
love potion because, if you have women who passed
through that not today’s women of course – if there are
women that pass through this traditional training they
can’t let go any man, because not [due to] medicine, but
[because] they want to exhibit what they [had been]
taught (Caregiver 1).
…In fact, women in those days our mothers didn't
visit you and they banned you from visiting: ‘aka itong
(you are going to exhibit gluttony). In fact, the worst is
that let them give you something there and you collect
it and eat they would see you …They would not say
anything…They would prepare that same food and keep
it for you. You won’t know that you have erred. They
will wait for you [to return home]. The big women in the
compound will wait for you …They will start petting you
like my maternal and paternal grandparents…. They will
start giving you all sorts of sweet names. Unknown to
you food is going on that same food you ate in that
compound will be waiting for you and they will be
petting you: O mama’. They will call you [into] the
room and tell you it is time for us to go into storytelling,
even when it is not yet night (Caregiver 1).
You pamper them…It will make you happy. I am happy
when he is happy (general laughter) (FGDW, P2).
Introduction
75
It is also noteworthy that nkuho is a gender-specific exercise
intended for Efik females only:
…They don’t do nkuho for men… (Maiden 1).
[General laughter and P3 cut in] Well, I don’t think there is any
finishing school for boys in the world…I have never heard of
any finishing school for boys…. The men have their own way of
going through their rites of passage and grooming… like the
Ekpe society (FGDW, P3).
Maybe I can add that they did through their fathers. They
went to the farm with their fathers. They went hunting
with their fathers and talked about the Ekpe society. I
think that is where the men were also trained and taught
to be strong, to be men and fathers (FGDW, P2).
Though not formal like the young ladies being put in the
fattening room, they have their age grades where their
fathers will usually initiate them into and you will find
out that this is where they have this wrestling. That is
where they go to test their muscle, their strength. And,
here too, the young women will gather to watch and they
can also pick their friends there. So, though not formal
like the fattening room, it was good for them because, if
you follow your dad to hunt and you follow your father
to the farm, there, you will exercise your strength
through the landmass you can clear, right! And the kind
of animal you can hunt and bring home for your wife and
children will now determine your manhood (FGDW,
P4).
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76
[General laughter and P3 cut in] Well I don’t think there
is any finishing school for boys in the world… I have
never heard of any finishing school for boys …The men
have their own way of going through their rites of
passage and grooming... like the Ekpe society (FGDW,
P3).
Maybe I can add that they did through their fathers. They
went to the farm with their father, they went hunting with
their father and talked about the Ekpe society. I think that
is where the men were also trained and taught to be
strong, to be men and fathers (FGDW, P2).
Although deeply rooted in culture, gender roles, as already
observed, vary in different societies and can be changed over
time since social values and norms are not static. Thus, beyond
the expectations of men to be economic providers of the family
and women to be caregivers as observed in other cultural
contexts, Efik women occupied positions, shared privileges
and/or participated in what would have been exclusively male
responsibilities/benefits in other cultures. Few narrations from
participants in the focus groups also emphasize this claim:
As far as I know, being in Duke Town Church where the
English coronations of Efik kings are done, I discovered
years back during the coronation of Edidem Iye Ephraim
Adam, that it is a woman that pours the Mmong Emem
(Water of Peace) on the Edidem (King). I also knew that
the last insult the Edidem receives (marking the last time
anybody can insult the Edidem for the rest of his
lifetime) is the Ikong Edidem Eti, and that is also done
by a woman… They have roles to play during coronation
(FGDM, R2).
Introduction
77
…[though] not in equal numbers but we give reverence
to women. They must be represented because, even in
the parliament or any other meetings, there are roles
reserved exclusively for women. Without a woman
being there in the council, those roles will suffer
(FGDM, R4).
…The Efik – from my experience that spans decades of
my interactions… in my community respect women.
Several activities have revealed that we the Efik value
our daughters to the extent that, when we give our
daughters out in marriage, we take so little from you.
Almost nothing is taken from you to drum it into your
ears that we are not selling our daughter to you. If, by
circumstance or any event of life, you don’t find her
compatible anymore, please kindly return her to us.
Don’t touch her. Don’t beat her. Don’t harm her. Don’t
torture her. Just bring her back to us, and then the small
palm wine we took from you. We will gladly return it to
you. Of course, culturally, this [varies] from family to
family depending on the extent of your agricultural
prowess and the extent of your kind merchandise or your
wealth, so to speak. You will find out that, even when we
are giving you our daughter, what we call mkpo nduk
ufot”, we give you so much. We are bringing her to you
with so much with a truckload of stuff so that you will
know that this girl is coming from a home, a people. So
that when you see the items that accompany her to your
house, you will give her respect and, even if you have
planned [to maltreat] her, you will change your mind.
From the festivity, from events, from the thousands of
people that have come from far and near; from families
that have come to hand her over to you, you will know
definitely that, here, we value our daughters; we value
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
78
our women. Even in the [event of] demise of husband
and spouses, we don’t despise them. Unlike other
cultures that will want to throw them out of the house
and uncle and others confiscating things, we don’t do
that like [some] other cultures. Even this other diabolic
cultural practice in some cultures, [in which] we have
husbands who have complexes and are not sure of
themselves, that will want to go to diabolical means to
put stuff into their wives body; here, it is not like that.
We value our women, even in the compound, in the
farmyards, in the estates. Their rooms remain even when
they are married, wherever they are... So the Efik does
really value [their] women (KII, 1).
…To a large extent, Efik women do have rights in their
communities. If you compare the Efiks to other cultures,
you will see that the women have more rights than
women in other cultures. For instance, the right to
inheritance Efik women inherit property. With respect
to the focus of the Efik families, I think honour is given
to the firstborn. A lot of honour is given to the firstborn
irrespective of whether that firstborn child is a female or
a male. So, where the firstborn child is a female, the
firstborn has a lot of responsibilities. There are lots of
things that rest on her shoulders, especially if the
firstborn is a female. In Efik, we do not say because you
are a female, you don’t have a say. Efik women have a
say in their families. They take decisions and
responsibilities are on them [as well] (KII 2).
…Women play major roles here from the family to the
society, they are not looked down upon here. The Efik
woman has her pride [and] has her dignity. She doesn't
play a role of a second fiddle because she wasn't brought
Introduction
79
up that way in the family, and she [grows] up knowing
that she can take decisions, you know. She's equal to
anything and anyone. So, the Efik woman is a woman
[who] has her self-confidence (KII 4).
…Like I said, it depends on how affluent individual
families are… Before now, we used to have this thinking
that you must look for a male child so he will take over
from you. It wasn’t because this male child you were
looking for is supposed to take over everything. The
male child was just to answer your name in what we call
the naming culture because we believed that the male
child would extend your name beyond you; whereas your
daughter would bear the names of the husband [from]
where she would be married [into]. But when it comes to
property acquisition, distribution, arbitration or
acquaintances to siblings, the females, our daughters, are
also given their rights. They have every right, now more
so with the [level of] awareness, even in the Obong’s
palace where we have a lot of female high chiefs sitting
in the palace that are in council which is not
obtainable elsewhere. If you go to the Obong’s council,
we have a lot of women high chiefs who are sitting there
in-council. So you know, this allows women or females
lots of latitudes... Then, in families where we don’t have
males at all just females so who will you send their
property to? We don’t allow uncles to take over the
estates and maltreat our children, even when they are
females. It is true that depending on how much you have
to bequeath to your children, women have their own
rights. They have the right to have [or own] land. They
have the right to property and all of that (KII 1).
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Yes, there are roles. For instance, let's say a father passes
on. For the burial, there are roles that each child
depending on your birth position has to play. So,
wherever you fall in, you play that role, whether you are
a male or a female.… It depends on your position in the
family. If you are the first, you take up the role of the
first in the family sex [or gender] doesn't matter... (KII
4).
…the first daughter is the one that controls and shares
the property of the parents after their death, even if the
one directly following her is a male (P1).
Efik women, just like [their] men, have equal rights to
own property, unlike in other societies and cultures. In
fact, in other cultures, you will discover that after
marriage, she ceases to own anything in that community.
But, it is not so in Efik land. Here, women are allowed
to own property, especially first daughters. So, they have
very prominent roles to play in our communities
(FGDM, R1).
In Efik families, there is no discrimination in property
sharing between men and women, especially the first
daughters. But, in some other cultures like in some parts
of Akwa Ibom and, maybe some parts of northern Cross
River State, a woman won't have land or property. But in
the Efik community, even as the women are going out to
be married, they're told, ‘If that marriage does not favour
you, please come back home. We still have a place for
you.’ So, there's that protection for the girl-child in Efik
communities; they are even overpampered (FGDM, R1).
Introduction
81
Buttressing further, a key informant stressed:
Yes, there are roles. For instance, let's say a father passes
on. For the burial, there are roles that each child
depending on your birth position has to play. So,
wherever you fall in, you play that role; whether you are
a male or a female. …It depends on your number in the
family. If you are the first, you take up the role of the
first in the family. Sex doesn't matter... (KII 4).
…The first daughter is the one that controls and shares
the property of the parents after their death, even if the
one directly following her is a male (P1).
Well, I want to look at my family, for instance. I have
observed that when compared to other traditions [that] I
have seen and interacted with, the female child and the
male child in Efik land [present no] difference as such
(FGDW, P2).
I agree with what [Participant 2] has said. Generally, in
Efik culture, women can inherit. They can own property
and they are even part of the council of chiefs, depending
on what level…Women are also part of the council. Like
in the Obong council, [the king] does have the immediate
council of chiefs of which a woman isn’t part at all. But
the Obong also has an extended and larger council where
women are part of it… Not 100 percent… But, they do
have rights, unlike [what obtains in] other tribes. They
have a good status in the community (FGDW, P3).
There’s no Efik community without a woman in the
community leadership, none! The women mingle with
the male leaders to make decisions in the community.
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You cannot make any decision in the Efik community
without a woman being in attendance. (FGDM, R1).
Yes! ... she has that right. They can own land…women
do have rights. They inherit property… Like in my
family, my [mother's] side, especially, it is the same
thing…. They will give the first whether male or
female more. It is not the gender that matters (FGDW,
P2).
It was difficult for a woman to rise on her own to make
a decision. But, since the world has changed so much, it
is permissible for her to make a decision. They are
sharper than men sometimes, especially in terms of
seeing beyond the nose. Using myself as an example, I
copy many things I do from my wife (FGDM, R5).
In the ancient era, women did not have a say in the Efik
kingdom. It is in the modern era that women are given
the chance to flow. So, even in the Obong's Palace, we
have women there who are advisers to the Obong. We
didn't have that before this modern era. The ancient Efik
men believed women should stay in the kitchen. They
did not allow girls or women to go to school because they
were considered as nothing where men were. So, right
now, Efik women are doing so well academically
(FGDM, R3).
…Women grow up and the father shares his inheritance
amongst them. Modernisation or not, it is still the same.
It has not changed. The female child knows that she has
a right in her father’s house. Even if she gets married,
she can always come back home as she has her place.
The father will always say, ‘Look...I am not selling my
Introduction
83
child; her room is there, her part of the house is there; it
has remained like that. So a woman has an equal right to
make decisions. I have seen in some places where, if you
don’t have a male child, it becomes a problem. But,
among the Efiks, it is not like that. The first child can be
a female and she makes decisions and everybody will
respect that decision. Yes! A female child will be
respected [just] as a male child. And the female child
if she is the first she has that right and nobody can take
it away from her (FGDW, P2).
…Over the years, there have been lots of changes. That
is why today you have so many women sitting in the
council of the Obong of Calabar palace to make vital
decisions. They have their say; they have their own
decisions to make in the Obong’s palace that will affect
the Efik society and the community in general. Before
now, the men [made] the decisions and they go back to
inform their wives what transpired in the palace. But,
now, women are fully integrated (KII, 1).
… Being a woman is not a curse. You have the right [to
take] control of your life… I happen to be a traditional
marriage presenter. You always hear us say we are not
selling our daughters. But, that doesn't influence you not
to stay in your marital home, not to take care of your
marriage. It only boils down to you. You are the one
wearing the shoe. If the shoe pinches you, you know
where it pinches you and that decision is your own. Your
parents will not say, ‘As you are going there, if it is bad,
bring her back.’ No! They will advise you that, as you
are going there, you have to endure. Because there are
two things in marriage: it has sweetness and it has
bitterness. So, you are encouraged to endure when it is
Re-Examining Gender, Gender Roles and Identity In Nigeria: The Fattening…
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bitter. But, when it comes to violence in your marriage,
then you don’t expect a woman to sit back and be
punched like a bag, attacked with hot water, cut with a
machete or cut with a knife. That is when you will see an
Efik woman not enduring that, and she will go back
(FGDW, P4; FGDW, P2 agrees)
By and large, the autonomy given to the Efik woman seems
circumstantial, considering the restrictive nature of its latitude.
Hence, there are purported limitations in decision making. Some
decisions have been regarded as ‘momentary’, while others are
‘permanent’. Marriage is a determining factor that influenced
the limitations as herein reported:
What kind of decision are we referring to? Is it a
permanent decision or a decision to solve a momentary
problem? If we are talking about a woman taking a
permanent decision that affects the household, it will be
checked to find out if such a decision contradicts that of
the men in the household. Remember, she will one day
leave the house to another person's [house; that is, get
married], and it is the men who opposed the decision that
she made in the household. What will be the fate of that
decision? So, when it comes to making permanent
decisions in households, the men are allowed to take
charge. That doesn't mean we discriminate against
women; we have equal rights. But, when it comes to
making a decision that affects the total lifetime of that
household, the men make it (FGDM, R4).
Furthermore, enquiries about the widowhood rites elicited the
following responses to instantiate this cultural aspect further:
Introduction
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The only thing practised in Efik land is <